• We’re Spending Down Our Savings to Prop Up Our Economy


    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.

  • Suppressing the Vote is Harder Than it Looks


    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


    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


    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


    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


    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.

  • Hooray! Gasoline Prices Are Going Down


    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


    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


    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


    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.

  • Yet Another Retired Spook Says Netanyahu is a Nutcase


    I know Israeli politics is even crankier and more partisan than ours, but even so it’s hard not be impressed by the number of national security figures who have recently suggested that prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu is basically a nutcase. Here’s the latest:

    “I don’t believe in a leadership that makes decisions based on messianic feelings,” said Yuval Diskin, who stepped down last May after six years running the Shin Bet, Israel’s version of the F.B.I.

    “I have observed them from up close,” Mr. Diskin said. “I fear very much that these are not the people I’d want at the wheel.” Echoing Meir Dagan, the former head of the Mossad, Israel’s spy agency, Mr. Diskin also said that the government was “misleading the public” about the likely effectiveness of an aerial strike on Iran’s nuclear facilities.

    ….Ronen Bergman, an Israeli analyst and author of the 2008 book “The Secret War With Iran,” said in an interview that Mr. Diskin’s comments were significant because he left the government in good standing with Mr. Netanyahu — unlike Mr. Dagan, who was forced out — and because he was widely respected “for being professional and honest and completely disconnected from politics.”

    In somewhat related news, the LA Times reports that President Obama is playing good cop to Netanyahu’s bad cop:

    U.S. officials said they might agree to let Iran continue enriching uranium up to 5% purity, which is the upper end of the range for most civilian uses, if its government agrees to the unrestricted inspections, strict oversight and numerous safeguards that the United Nations has long demanded.

    ….A senior administration official said that if Iran fulfills U.S. and other world powers’ demands for strict enforcement of U.N. monitoring and safeguards, “there can be a discussion” of allowing low-level domestic enrichment, “and maybe we can get there, potentially.” But the official, who declined to be identified because of the sensitivity of the issue, emphasized that such discussions remained only a small possibility because Iran has shown so little willingness to meet international demands.

    Like Diskin, I continue to have my doubts that Israel could effectively take out Iran’s nuclear facilities on its own. I say this with a keen appreciation that I don’t know squat about operational military affairs, but even so, I still don’t see it. They could unquestionably do a bunch of damage, but given the distances involved and the size of the Israeli Air Force, it’s really hard to believe that they could do much more than set back the Iranian program a year or so.

    All of which keeps me wondering what’s really going on here. Is Netanyahu really hellbent on a military strike? Or is there some kind of complicated Israeli-U.S. bluff unfolding? Neither option quite seems wholly believable, so I don’t really know what to believe. Stay tuned.

  • Friday Cat Blogging & Fundraising – 27 April 2012


    On the left we have a rare action shot of Inkblot. This isn’t rare because he never walks around, it’s rare because I’m not a quick enough photographer to catch him very often before he either flops onto the ground or else rushes up to nuzzle the camera lens. But this time I did, right in the middle of all our glorious spring foliage. And on the right, we have a classic: a cat in a bag. It never gets old, does it?

    But you know what else we get in spring aside from glorious foliage? Spring fundraising! Over on the right Clara and Monika have 15 reasons you should help support our investigative journalism, and it’s an impressive list that includes pink slime, Vivian Maier, exploding Pintos, redefining rape, and our invention of the po’ boy. But I’ll add two more right below, because there’s more to life than investigative journalism, right? Here’s how to donate:

    As always, many thanks to those of you who throw a few dollars our way. It’s what keeps us going, cats and humans both.

  • Water Really is More Important Than Money


    Burt Likko has today’s Complaint of the Day™:

    Why is it that I need to create a not-less-than-twelve-character username, consisting of at least one capital letter, at least one lowercase letter, at least one punctuation symbol, and at least one number, and then create a unique password of not less than twelve characters, also consisting of at least one capital letter, at least one lowercase letter, at least one punctuation symbol, and at least one number, and go through a 258-bit double-encryption process to get my water bill from the County of Los Angeles online?

    Impressive! Congratulations, DWP! I just went through my annual ritual of changing all my online passwords because, you know, it seems like a good idea, right? And I didn’t find a single site that wouldn’t accept an 8-character password with at least one uppercase letter, one lowercase letter, and one number. That includes three or four passwords for various financial institutions. But I guess water is super special or something.

  • Can Clean Energy be a Wedge Issue in 2012?


    Rolling Stone’s latest interview with President Obama was pretty dull, and in any case I nearly became ill just from reading the cloying, self-congratulatory introduction by (of course) Jann Wenner. I made it up to “Having complimented me during our last interview on my brightly colored socks….” and had to get up and take a break.

    But David Roberts reminds me that although Obama made no news, he did make a worthwhile point about the Republican electorate:

    Given all we’ve heard about and learned during the GOP primaries, what’s your take on the state of the Republican Party, and what do you think they stand for?

    First of all, I think it’s important to distinguish between Republican politicians and people around the country who consider themselves Republicans. I don’t think there’s been a huge change in the country. If you talk to a lot of Republicans, they’d like to see us balance the budget, but in a balanced way.

    ….But what’s happened, I think, in the Republican caucus in Congress, and what clearly happened with respect to Republican candidates, was a shift to an agenda that is far out of the mainstream — and, in fact, is contrary to a lot of Republican precepts. I said recently that Ronald Reagan couldn’t get through a Republican primary today, and I genuinely think that’s true. You have every candidate onstage during one of the primary debates rejecting a deficit-reduction plan that involved $10 in cuts for every $1 of revenue increases. You have a Republican front-runner who rejects the Dream Act, which would help young people who, through no fault of their own, are undocumented, but who have, for all intents and purposes, been raised as Americans. You’ve got a Republican Congress whose centerpiece, when it comes to economic development, is getting rid of the Environmental Protection Agency.

    ….I think it’s fair to say that this has become the way that the Republican political class and activists define themselves.

    This isn’t the biggest insight in the world, or anything, but it’s something I try to keep firmly in mind. Mostly I fail, but it’s still worth keeping in mind: lots of conservatives may very well be true believers who inhale Drudge and Rush and Fox News, but lots of them aren’t. They’re just ordinary, non-fire-breathing folks who happen to be a little more conservative than me. This presents an opportunity for liberals, of course, and David suggests that one area ripe for wedge making is clean energy:

    Obama’s contention is that the GOP political class and activist base have worked themselves into a blind ideological fury, but most people who identify as Republican do not share their rigidity. They are more likely to lean in the direction of Independents and moderates.

    If this is true, it identifies a political vulnerability. Democrats ought to be able to exploit the differences between the masses and the ideologues, to set them at odds with one another.

    I’m not sure how many genuine “wedge issues” there are, actually, but one that shows up in the polls over and over again is clean energy. As I wrote back in January, clean energy is a wedge issue that favors Democrats.

    Read the whole thing to get the details of David’s argument. My guess is that this is unlikely to become a major campaign issue on its own, but you never know. If the right event comes along, it could push this into the spotlight and force Romney to take some unpopular hardline positions. Ideally, I suppose we’d discover a huge shale deposit in Yosemite National Park and then demand that Romney disown all the folks on the right who would immediately pop up to insist that the Obama administration is anti-growth for opposing a drilling rig on top of Half Dome. That might do it.

  • We Should Be Tough On Crime, Unless It’s Crime We Approve Of


    It’s pretty hard to keep up with the faux outrage these days. Just this morning I read that Darrell Issa is getting ready to hold Eric Holder in contempt over the right’s favorite endless whipping boy of the past year, Fast & Furious, but I guess this is already old news. Yawn. Apparently the latest ginned-up outrage comes from a video in which an EPA official recaps a pep talk he gave to his team two years ago:

    It was kind of like how the Romans used to conquer little villages in the Mediterranean. They’d go into a little Turkish town somewhere, they’d find the first five guys they saw and they would crucify them. And then you know that town was really easy to manage for the next few years.

    Ouch. Maybe not the best analogy to use. But let’s hear the rest:

    And so you make examples out of people who are in this case not compliant with the law. Find people who are not compliant with the law, and you hit them as hard as you can and you make examples out of them, and there is a deterrent effect there. And, companies that are smart see that, they don’t want to play that game, and they decide at that point that it’s time to clean up.

    Ah. So he wants his team to go after people who break the law and hit them hard. Set an example. That sounds very….conservative. James Q. Wilson would approve, no? Unless, of course, it’s environmental laws we’re talking about. In that case, I guess it’s better just to ignore them.

  • Yet More Mind-Boggling Compensation News From Wall Street


    Here’s some heartwarming news from the LA Times today:

    Less than a year before the 2008 collapse of Lehman Bros. plunged the global economy into a terrifying free fall, the Wall Street firm awarded nearly $700 million to 50 of its highest-paid employees, according to internal documents reviewed by The Times.

    …. The rich pay packages for so many people raised eyebrows even among compensation experts and provided fresh evidence of the money-driven Wall Street culture that was blamed for triggering the financial crisis. “Many people are going to be stunned at how well some people were being paid,” said Brian Foley, an executive compensation expert in White Plains, N.Y. “This wasn’t a matter of five or six people being paid a lot.”

    ….The records illustrate that enormous pay wasn’t limited to top executives but was dished out to a wide range of traders and others who sometimes took home even bigger paychecks than the CEOs who ran their companies.

    It’s nothing to get upset about, though. Just a few bad apples. The exception that proves the rule. The black sheep of the family. Surely you don’t believe that all of Wall Street was doing this, do you?

  • Economy is Doing OK, But Not Great


    I suppose I should do a pro forma post about today’s GDP announcement, so here it is: GDP increased 2.2% last quarter. The general consensus is that this is “meh.” It’s not great, especially for an economy supposedly coming out of a recession, but it’s not horrible either, and it might get revised upward next month anyway. Bottom line: if it’s a blip, it’s no big deal. If it’s the first sign of a slowing economy, it’s pretty bad news. But we’ll have to wait and see. More details here.

  • Government-Run Healthcare is More Efficient Than Private Healthcare

    <a href="http://www.flickr.com/photos/truthout/4460983091/">Truthout.org</a>/Flickr


    Can the government provide healthcare more efficiently than the private market? There’s no simple answer to that, but a couple of recent data points suggest the answer is yes.

    First there’s Medicare. It’s true that long-term Medicare costs remain our most critical budget problem, thanks to aging baby boomers and ever-expanding treatments for chronic illnesses and end-of-life care. But per-capita Medicare spending has been on a long downward trend, and that trend has been so steady and predictable that a recent study suggested that spending growth per beneficiary over the next decade would be close to zero. Earlier this week we got some confirmation of this when the annual Social Security Trustees report was released. Most of the media attention focused on Social Security, whose financial position deteriorated compared to last year thanks to a slowing economy and an aging population. But using the same economic forecasts, the trustees nonetheless projected no deterioration in Medicare’s financial picture. Why? “Once you dig into the numbers,” says the Washington Post’s Sarah Kliff, “the most plausible explanation is a pretty encouraging one: Our health-care system is getting better at delivering the same medicine more efficiently.”

    And there’s more. On Wednesday, Austin Frakt and Aaron Carroll reported on a new study of Medicaid spending by states. Despite years of horror stories about Medicaid bankrupting state budgets, the study found that most of the increase over the past decade has simply been due to inflation and population growth, not the rising cost of medical care. Adjusted for inflation and population, it turns out that Medicaid spending rose by less than 4% between 2002 and 2011. (That’s the dotted line in the chart on the right.) Why has Medicaid done so well? The study quotes Vernon Smith, former Medicaid director for Michigan:

    When you look at the rate of growth for all the major payers — Medicaid, Medicare, employer-sponsored insurance, National Health Expenditures — what you see is that no other payer has constrained the rate of growth in spending as well as Medicaid has. [] The reason is that no payer has been as motivated to undertake cost containment as state governments.

    This is a key insight, and it doesn’t apply only to state governments. One of the problems with the employer-centered healthcare model that we adopted accidentally during and after World War II is that it does a pretty good job of hiding costs. Sure, our premiums and copays rise every year, but most of us have very little idea how much our medical insurance really costs. We pay a small portion, and the rest is, from our point of view, effectively free. By contrast, in European countries, which have done a much better job of controlling costs than the U.S., spending comes largely out of tax dollars, which means that legislatures and taxpayers have to face up to the cost of healthcare every year when they pass a budget. The fact that the process is played out in the rough and tumble of the political spotlight gives everyone a strong incentive to hold down spending. After all, rising costs mean rising taxes.

    Until the cost of medical care bites, Americans won’t put a lot of pressure on the healthcare industry to rein in its prices and administer care more efficiently. Taxpayer-supported national healthcare could help us get there. The relative efficiency of Medicare and Medicaid are bellwethers we should pay attention to.

  • Sometimes Dumb Science Turns Out to be Pretty Smart


    Members of Congress love to grandstand about allegedly idiotic studies being funded by federal grants. But guess what? It turns out that a lot of this dumb sounding research ends up being pretty useful:

    Federally-funded research of dog urine ultimately gave scientists and understanding of the effect of hormones on the human kidney, which in turn has been helpful for diabetes patients. A study called “Acoustic Trauma in the Guinea Pig” resulted in treatment of early hearing loss in infants. And that randy screwworm study? It helped researchers control the population of a deadly parasite that targets cattle costing the government $250,000 but ultimately saving the cattle industry more than $20 billion, according to Cooper’s office.

    More here.

  • Zealots to the Left of Me, Zealots to the Right of Me


    A “self-perpetuating oligarchy” is an organization where the current leadership plays a strong role in picking its successors. Corporations are an example: the board of directors chooses a CEO, who periodically nominates new members to the board, which eventually chooses the next CEO.

    But corporations are only weakly self-perpetuating, since boards usually don’t have a lot of loyalty to a particular style of management and CEOs usually don’t care all that much who takes over after they retire. Beside, CEOs can be fired. A much better example is the Catholic Church: popes appoint cardinals unilaterally, and the College of Cardinals elects a pope when the old one dies. What’s more, popes can’t be fired and they care a lot about appointing cardinals who are ideologically sympatico. Mark Kleiman, after reading about the Church’s recent humiliation of American nuns for being insufficiently anti-sex, comments:

    As the characteristic risks of the democratic republic are corruption and demagogy, and the characteristic risks of hereditary rule are incompetent rulers and succession struggles, the characteristic risk of the self-perpetuating oligarchy is gerontocracy.

    For most of the history of the Catholic Church, even the well-fed and well-cared-for tended to drop off by around age 70. So gerontocracy wasn’t a big threat. But modern nutrition, sanitation, and medicine have extended the life of the body by more years than they’ve extended the acuity of the mind. John Paul II put in a rule to get rid of aging Cardinals — mostly so he could complete the process of packing the College with members of his own faction — but didn’t apply the rule to himself, and continued to wear the Triple Tiara until he was long past it.

    So — from a secularist perspective — here’s wishing a very long life to Pope Benedict XVI. I doubt that his commitment of the Church to the side of reaction and plutocracy around the world — continuing the work of John Paul II — is now reversible. So the faster the whole thing crashes and burns, the better.

    It seems like every time I turn around I’m confronted by growing extremism. The Catholic Church is, increasingly, little more than an angry collection of reactionary old men who hate the modern world. The Republican Party is a refuge for bright-eyed true believers intent on tearing down the modern state. The state of Israel, unable to break the grip of its most expansionist zealots, is busily wreaking its own destruction and doing its best to drag us along with them. Large swaths of the Muslim world remain captured by the fever dreams of its most radical factions.

    Unfortunately, none of this seems to be crashing and burning. Not yet, anyway. So when does the wave finally crest and start to break?

    Or am I just imagining all this because I’m in a bit of a punk mood today?