Kevin Drum - August 2012

Tomorrow is a New Decade

| Wed Aug. 22, 2012 10:58 PM EDT

Well, that's that. August 22, 2012, is over. Tomorrow I start my second decade of blogging. See you then! 

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CBO Joins the Infographic Craze, Predicts Economic Doom in 2013

| Wed Aug. 22, 2012 10:00 PM EDT

Big news today! The Congressional Budget Office has gotten into the infographic business. I'm pretty sure they've done this just as infographics are going out of fashion, but still. It's a nice effort to maintain the attention of the internet generation.

Today's infographic is about the infamous "fiscal cliff." Basically, a whole bunch of stuff is set to expire on December 31st. The Bush tax cuts will go away, raising taxes by hundreds of billions of dollars. Big spending cuts agreed to as part of the debt ceiling standoff will take effect. The payroll tax holiday enacted during the 2010 lame duck session will expire. Unemployment benefits will get slashed. Medicare payment reductions will go into effect. And those are just the big ticket items.

So what effect would this have on the economy? Here's a snippet from the infographic:

That's pretty bad. If we extend everything, CBO figures economic growth will clock in at about 1.7% next year — not great, but not catastrophic either. But if everything expires, the country will fall back into recession, with the economy shrinking by 0.5%.

It's vanishingly unlikely that Congress will even attempt to address this before the election. That means we're due for yet another exciting lame duck session in December. I'll bet you can hardly wait.

Romney's Tax Returns Are Hurting Him Badly

| Wed Aug. 22, 2012 3:15 PM EDT

Jamelle Bouie highlights the following question from today's NBC/Wall Street Journal poll:

Recent events have hurt both candidates, but Jamelle points out that the tax issue has hurt Romney much more than anything else:

Romney’s anger over the Obama campaign’s decision to go after his tax returns makes more sense in this light; the controversy is doing real damage to his campaign, and more important, it has the potential to do more if Team Obama can return it to the forefront of the discussion.

I wouldn’t bet against that possibility. As long as Romney refuses to release his returns, Obama can continue to hit him on the issue. Death by a thousand cuts is an exaggeration, but it’s not far off from what might happen; Romney could become defined by the things he won’t reveal, and gradually loses the trust of the public. His low favorability becomes a burden he can’t lift, keeping him behind Obama through the fall, and into the election.

We'll see. My guess is that Romney's tax returns don't have quite that much staying power, and the Obama campaign will move on to other topics in the near future. Romney's tax plan, which is almost comically tilted toward the rich, is one possibility. It plays off Romney's tax returns nicely, and I understand that attacks on Romney's plan poll pretty well.

If I Were Julian Assange, I Wouldn't Want to be Extradited to the United States Either

| Wed Aug. 22, 2012 2:40 PM EDT

WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange is currently holed up in the Ecuadorean embassy in London because he doesn't want to be turned over to Sweden, where he faces charges of sexual assault. However, Assange says he's not trying to evade Swedish justice. He just wants assurances that Sweden won't extradite him to the United States as soon as their investigation is finished. Via Glenn Greenwald, Alan McIntosh suggests a possible solution:

If Assange leaves the Ecuadorean Embassy then he is likely to be arrested for breaking his bail conditions. This would provide the UK Government with two options: first they postpone the surrender of Assange to the Swedish authorities until he is prosecuted for breach of bail; or alternatively they surrender him but enter an agreement with the Swedish authorities that once proceedings are complete (which would include the serving of any sentence) Assange will be returned to the UK for trial.

This is permitted under Article 24(2) of the European Council Framework Decision on European Arrest Warrants. The UK could then give assurances that it would refuse consent to any application to remove Assange from Sweden as that would breach the agreement and the UK’s consent is required under Article 28 (4).

If the UK Government is to believed, it is only extraditing Assange as it has a legal obligation to; if the Swedish Government is believed it wants to investigate the allegations that have been made; and if Assange is to be believed he is prepared to go back, but doesn’t want a bag over his head and to be wearing an orange jumpsuit whilst tied to a gurney.

So that’s that.

The assault charges against Assange have always been hard to get a handle on. On the one hand, you can't ignore them. They have to be investigated. On the other hand, the timing has always seemed weirdly convenient. After an entire lifetime of apparently not sexually assaulting women, suddenly there were two separate charges coming right at the time that WikiLeaks began releasing confidential U.S. cables and videos.

But regardless of what you think of that, Assange's fear of being extradited to the U.S. seems pretty reasonable. What's more, I have little doubt that if the UK and Sweden really wanted to, they could figure out a way of giving Assange the assurance against extradition that he wants. I'll bet they'd do it if it were someone worried about being extradited to China. I can't pretend to know everything that's going on here, but still, common sense suggests that the fact that both the UK and Sweden are stonewalling is telling.

American Education Is Not in Catastrophic Decline

| Wed Aug. 22, 2012 1:11 PM EDT

Hey, my latest piece for the magazine is online today. It's actually a sidebar to a big piece by Kristina Rizga about the year she spent embedded at Mission High, a low-income high school in San Francisco. At Mission High, she reports, test scores aren't enough to tell you the whole story of how well they're performing:

One of the most diverse high schools in the country, Mission has 925 students holding 47 different passports. The majority are Latino, African American, and Asian American, and 72 percent are poor. Yet even as the school was being placed on the list of lowest-performing schools, 84 percent of the graduating class went on to college, higher than the district average; this year, 88 percent were accepted. (Nationally, 32 percent of Latino and 38 percent of African American students go to college.) That same year, Mission improved Latinos' test scores more than any other school in the district. And while suspensions are skyrocketing across the nation, they had gone down by 42 percent at Mission. [Principal Eric] Guthertz had seen dropout rates fall from 32 percent to 8 percent. Was this what a failing school looked like?

As we used to say back in the day, read the whole thing! My sidebar is a counterpoint aimed at people who think test scores do say a lot about whether a school is successful or not. And my point is simple: if you look at the most widely accepted national test (the NAEP), and if you look at its results over the past few decades, American schools aren't getting worse. They just aren't. You might think they aren't improving fast enough, and that's fine. You might think we spend too much on them, and that's fine too. But based on test scores, today's kids aren't doing worse than kids of the previous couple of generations. Despite the endless doomsaying you hear practically everywhere, they're doing better:

There's more to this story, and if you make it to the end you'll see that the news isn't all rosy. But the news isn't terrible, either.

We have plenty of failing schools, and we should be doing a lot more to figure out how to fix them. It's a disgrace for a rich country like the United States to be failing so many of its kids. At the same time, taken as a whole, the American educational system isn't in decline. That's something you don't hear very often because there are a lot of interest groups who are invested in a narrative of educational failure. But the data just doesn't back them up.

The Comforting Little Lie That Seniors All Tell Themselves

| Wed Aug. 22, 2012 12:11 PM EDT

Aaron Blake notes that recent polling demonstrates that seniors love Paul Ryan. Dave Weigel comments:

As Blake affirms, this has a lot to do with Ryan's constant promise that the Romney-Ryan regime will not touch the Medicare plans of people currently over 55. Not only that, Ryan/Romney will restore funding to Medicare. Obama is "changing the program forever." Ryan will "protect and strengthen" it. Look, a TV ad!

The reason Ryan gets away with this is the reason that Republicans won the Medicare issue in 2010, taking seniors from a 50-50 vote to a 60-40 pro-GOP vote. He puts Medicare, theoretically, in a sort of lock-box. He promises to treat it separately from every other government program, and promises seniors of a certain age that they won't have to sacrifice.

The upshot of all this, of course, is that Medicare can never be reformed. Both parties can talk about reform all they want, but when the campaign rubber hits the electoral road they know that attacking cuts to Medicare is the way to win votes. And if both Democrats and Republicans take turns bashing anyone who has the gall to cut back Medicare spending, then Medicare spending will never get cut back.

On a wonky note, it's worth pointing out just how outrageous this whole "no one over 55" approach is. If you don't want to rein in Medicare growth in the first place, that's fine. But if you do want to rein in Medicare growth, current and near seniors are the #1 group that should be required to share in the pain. Seniors all like to think that they're just getting their due from a system they paid into all their lives, but it ain't true. They paid a pittance compared to what they're taking out. People in my generation, and the one before mine, will end up getting far more in Medicare benefits than we ever paid in:

If Medicare costs too much, everyone should be required to share in the pain of cutting it back. There's simply no reason to exempt current seniors.

Except, of course, that it's politically impossible. The "free ride" generation — those of us born just before and just after World War II — will go to our graves convinced that we spent our entire lives working harder than any other generation in history and are now getting back just a small piece of the enormous tax burden we paid in. It's a very comforting little lie, and not one that any sane politician is likely to challenge. It's not just a third rail of politics, it's more like the China Syndrome of politics.

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No, Republicans Don't Have a Lock on Racism, But…

| Wed Aug. 22, 2012 11:14 AM EDT

Chris Hayes stepped in it this weekend when he said, "It is undeniably the case that racist Americans are almost entirely in one political coalition and not the other." Both Alex Tabarrok and John Sides marshalled survey evidence to suggest that this isn't really true. There are plenty of racist Democrats.

So what should Chris have said? I think you can safely say two things about the modern Republican Party:

  • They tolerate racism in their ranks far more than Democrats do. Bernie Goldberg, a liberal turned conservative, admitted this on air earlier this year when he told Bill O'Reilly, "I am immensely uncomfortable with the bigotry on the right, and I don't care how many people don't like it. I am sick of it." Republicans are also more willing to make political appeals with an anti-minority racial subtext, as Fox News did during its Summer of Hate in 2010, or as Mitt Romney is doing now with his claims that Obama is gutting work requirements for welfare.
  • For the past 40 years, Republicans have opposed virtually every effort to address racism in the legislative sphere. Politically, this has been suicidal for their standing in the nonwhite community, and it's safe to say that they wouldn't have done this unless there was a corresponding benefit for them among whites. Quite clearly, appealing to white resentment of minorities is an important part of the Republican brand in a way it's not for Democrats, even if plenty of racists still inhabit the Democratic Party.

There's a lot more to be said about this, but I don't want to write a long post on the subject. I just want to make the point that (a) demographically speaking, Chris was probably wrong, but (b) politically speaking, he was mostly right. The Democratic Party may still harbor racists, just like any large group in America, but it doesn't tolerate or benefit from racial animus in its ranks. These days, that's pretty much the exclusive province of the conservative movement, and it needs to end.

For more on this from a different perspective, check out Will Wilkinson here.

Here's Why Obama Is Maintaining His Lead Over Mitt Romney

| Tue Aug. 21, 2012 11:20 PM EDT

Four weeks ago, thanks to Mitt Romney himself, the political world was consumed with "Romneyshambles," Romney's gaffe-filled disaster of a trip to Europe and Israel. Three weeks ago, thanks to Harry Reid, the political world was consumed with Mitt Romney's taxes. Then, thanks to Priorities USA Action, we spent a week arguing about whether Mitt Romney killed Joe Soptic's wife. A few days later, thanks to Paul Ryan, we spent a week being consumed by Medicare. Now, thanks to Todd Akin, it appears that we're going to spend this week talking about "legitimate rape" and abortion politics.

Barack Obama must be laughing his ass off about this. When was the last time Mitt Romney actually got to talk about the weakness of the economy? Over a month ago?

Fact Checking Not Dead Yet

| Tue Aug. 21, 2012 2:25 PM EDT

Newsweek might not bother with fact checking these days, but Ta-Nehisi Coates says it's still alive and well where he works:

When I arrived at The Atlantic in 2008, I was subjected to arguably the most thorough fact-checking procedure in all of popular publishing. That meant submitting an annotated version of the story with all sources cited, turning over all my notes, transcripts or audio, and the names and numbers of each of my sources, all of whom were called to confirm the veracity of my quotes.

In case you're curious, Mother Jones works the same way for its print pieces and online reported pieces. And yes, it's every bit the pain in the ass you'd expect. Also every bit as necessary as you'd think.

Yes, Plenty of Republicans Want to Ban All Abortions, Full Stop

| Tue Aug. 21, 2012 1:54 PM EDT

In an editorial that joins the Republican lynch mob asking Todd Akin to leave the Missouri Senate race, National Review takes Democrats to task for pretending that Akin's views on abortion are anything but a laughable fringe. Sure, Akin wants to ban abortion in cases of rape, but no one else does. Why, not a single state would ever do that. "Everyone knows this," says NR airly.

Dave Weigel points out today that not only is this not ridiculous, several states have already done it:

I needled a couple of National Review writers about this point yesterday (on Twitter, of course). Ramesh Ponnuru, one of the best writers in the country on life issues, was skeptical that the bans could "succeed" and be "read in court as barring abortions in cases of rape." I'm not as sure. Imagine that it's 2015, and Supreme Court Justice Ted Cruz has joined a 5-4 majority striking down Roe. How soon are you going to get majorities in Louisiana and North Dakota to undo their abortion bans? Are we betting on more liberal lower courts to do it for them?

Weigel is right. If Roe is overturned and states have the authority to regulate abortion as they please, of course some of them will ban abortion completely. And if abortion is murder — which it would be under the human life laws that virtually all Republicans now support — on what grounds could the courts overturn them? They couldn't. Everyone know this, and it's sophistry of the tawdriest and most cowardly kind to pretend otherwise.