Kevin Drum - August 2012

My Reactions to the Ryan Reaction

| Sat Aug. 11, 2012 3:34 PM EDT

I've written enough about Paul Ryan in the past that I don't feel a burning desire to rewrite all that stuff right this minute. Plenty of time for that later. But I do have a few comments about the reaction so far to Mitt Romney's choice of Ryan as his VP:

  • Democrats seem to be ecstatic because this means Romney can be held accountable for Ryan's budget plan, including its conversion of Medicare into a voucher program. I wouldn't be so sure of that, though. When was the last time a president was held responsible for the past policy positions of his running mate? Never, right? It's the other way around: Ryan will be expected to support Romney's positions now.
  • Will Ryan get away with this? Sure. Liberals (like me) like to gripe a lot about how the media swoons over Ryan, but that doesn't change the fact that the media swoons over Ryan. He's going to get pretty sympathetic treatment, and we have to figure on that.
  • On a personal level, Ryan is a good pick. He's going to strike a lot of voters as earnest and sincere. Add to that his puppy dog good looks and his even temperament and I can imagine lots of reactions in the neighborhood of "He seems like such a nice young man." He'll be hard to demonize.
  • But Republicans need to come down to earth too. Unfortunately for them, Ryan reinforces Romney's weakest point: that he seems out of touch with ordinary people. In Romney's case it's because he's a mega-millionaire with a stiff demeanor. In Ryan's case it's because of his green eyeshade approach to politics. Romney seems too rich to care about ordinary people, while Ryan seems too callow to understand that he should care about people.

Overall, I think Democrats got the better of things today. They can attack Ryan's budget proposals, they can mock his jejune Ayn Rand fixation, and they can credibly start demanding that Romney and Ryan put more flesh on their policy proposals. The tea party crowd thinks this is great because they're convinced that Middle America will really and truly come to love their scorched-earth approach to the federal government if only someone is brave enough to stand up and really sell it. This is a fantasy, and smart Republicans like Romney know it, which is why he's so assiduously avoided policy specifics. But having Ryan on the ticket is going to make it harder to keep the fever-eyed contingent under control.

In any case, I'll repeat what I said this morning: Ryan's just the VP. He presents plenty of opportunities for attack, but he won't radically change the course of the campaign. Liberal firepower should remain mostly trained on Romney. He's the guy that voters care about, not Ryan.

UPDATE: Apropos of my comment about not getting too distracted by Paul Ryan, Philip Klinkner sends along this 1988 quote from Lee Atwater to Dan Quayle:

You were the best rabbit we ever had. Let them chase you and they'll stay off the important things.

Roger that. Obviously this weekend is going to be all about Ryan, but in the longer term let's keep most of our focus on the important things.

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Paul Ryan is the Kindest, Bravest, Warmest, Most Wonderful Congressman I've Ever Known

| Sat Aug. 11, 2012 11:04 AM EDT

Michael Grunwald gets it right on Paul Ryan:

I should probably just shut up about Paul Ryan, because I believe there’s a federal statute requiring pundits to marvel at his “seriousness” and “courage.” I think there’s also a constitutional mandate enshrining him as a “deficit hawk,” even though he voted for the Bush tax cuts, the Bush military and security spending binge, the Medicare prescription drug benefit, the bank bailout and the auto bailout, and against the Bowles-Simpson deficit reduction plan. So I think for now I’ll just repost my screed about the Ryan plan from April 2011, suggesting that fuzzy math in the service of Tea Party ideology is not all that brave.

And here's the screed from April 2011:

I don't blame Ryan for trying to put a positive spin on his plan, rather than acknowledging that it would abolish Medicare and replace it with subsidies that won't keep up with health inflation. People like Medicare. And I can understand why he'd open a budget negotiation with fantasy numbers that depend on 2.8% unemployment in 2021 and "dynamic scoring" that can't pass a laugh test, rather than real numbers that would require much tougher choices. It's smart politics. I just don't understand how it became the political equivalent of the bayonet charge at Fredericksburg.

There's more, and it's worth a read. Grunwald has obviously been driven as mad as I have by the Beltway media's infatuation with the allegedly courageous Paul Ryan. After all, what's so courageous about consistently voting to increase spending for eight years, and then following it up with a plan that cuts taxes on the rich, slashes spending on the poor, and doesn't even have the guts to get its arithmetic right? That doesn't make Ryan brave, it just makes him a modern-day Republican.

Romney Picks Paul Ryan as Veep, Hopes Everyone Will Now Stop Asking About His Taxes

| Sat Aug. 11, 2012 9:29 AM EDT

According to the Pundit Responsibility Act of 1989, passed in the aftermath of George Bush's selection of Dan Quayle as his running mate, I am required to offer up my opinions on Mitt Romney's selection this morning of Paul Ryan as this year's Republican vice-presidential candidate. I don't want to do this, but the law's the law.

I'm not sure if I'm surprised by this or not. Maybe a little. But there are certainly upsides:

  • He's not Sarah Palin. Ryan has been around for a long time and there are no surprise skeletons in his closet.
  • He's got the boring white guy thing going for him, but he's not Rob Portman boring.
  • Conservatives adore him. They haven't quite suggested that they carve his mug into Mt. Rushmore yet (next to the Ronald Reagan addition), but they've come close.
  • I hate to concede this, but Ryan has a kind of nerd gravitas going for him that might help Romney with independents.

And the downsides?

  • He's young, has no executive experience, and no foreign policy cred.
  • He's not very warm and fuzzy.
  • The Ryan budget plan is now front and center in the campaign. He wants to push Granny off a cliff!

For my money, the downsides aren't very serious. Expectations of long experience have been declining for years among presidential candidates, so Ryan's level of experience should be plenty for VP. And Ryan may not be Joe Backslapper, but he's appealing enough in his own way. He's also unlikely to make any major gaffes.

As for Ryan's budget plan, with its replacement of Medicare by a voucher program, conventional wisdom says this is Ryan's biggest drawback as a running mate. It immediately changes the Romney campaign from one about taxes and the bad economy into one about the gutting of Medicare. Maybe so. But I'm not so sure: Ryan's budget plan probably won't be much more of a campaign issue than it already is unless Romney explicitly re-endorses it, which I don't think he'll do. He'll insist that he likes its general direction but he's campaigning on his budget plan, and I think there's a decent chance that everyone will go along with that.

Overall, I guess my take on this is that the Ryan pick helps Romney shore up his tea party base, but otherwise won't have a big effect. Vice presidential choices rarely do, after all.

Oddly enough, there's one way in which this might make a difference: if he presents such an irresistible target that Democrats take their eyes off the ball and spend too much time going after Ryan instead of Romney. Ryan is eminently attackable, and liberals loathe him enough that it will be tempting to spend a lot of time tearing him down. Take this poor fellow, for example, who's obviously been driven out of his mind by the guy:

I'm so tired of Paul Ryan I could scream. Every year we get a slightly different version of the same old thing, and every year we have to waste entire man-years of analysis in order to make the same exact points about it. And the biggest point is that his budget would force enormous, swinging cuts in virtually every domestic program, especially those for the poor. If this bothers Ryan, he's had plenty of time to revise his budget roadmap to address it.

But he hasn't. He knows perfectly well that his budget concentrates its cuts on the poorest Americans. It's been pointed out hundreds of times, after all. If he found that troublesome he'd change it. Since he hasn't, the only reasonable conclusion is that this is exactly what he intends. Let's stop pretending otherwise.

That would be, um, me. You can expect plenty more along those lines both here and elsewhere, but I think it would be a mistake to concentrate too much firepower on Ryan. He's still only the VP, after all, and he's oddly resistant to demonizing. Like it or not, his persona just doesn't make him seem very threatening. We should take our shots, but keep our eyes on the brass ring: Mitt Romney himself.

For more on Ryan and his dystopian vision for America, check out "Paul Ryan's Path to Penury," a quick take on Ryan's budget, with a few more numbers added here. You should also check out this post, which is about Ryan's refusal to name the "loopholes" he'd close in order to make his proposed tax cuts revenue neutral. This is actually sort of interesting, since it's very similar to Romney's refusal to do the same with his tax cut proposal. The difference is that Ryan has such a reputation as a budget nerd that he might actually try to explain himself and eventually get into trouble doing it. And also check out "Paul Ryan, Washington Charmer," for a few tidbits about Ryan's inexplicable hold over the DC press corps.

What else? David Corn has his take here. Tim Murphy is here. For longer takes, you might want to reread Jon Chait's profile of Ryan from April, and Ryan Lizza's recent profile in the New Yorker here.

Friday Cat Blogging - 10 August 2012

| Fri Aug. 10, 2012 5:55 PM EDT

I held out as long as I could. But it's just not Friday without catblogging, is it? So here is Domino splayed out in 90-degree weather trying to keep the maximum percentage of her body open to the breeze. Our patio bench is ideal for that. Plus she gets to sit next to Marian, always one of her favorite spots.

Have a good weekend, everyone.

My Shameful Secret: I Don't Know How to Use Chopsticks

| Fri Aug. 10, 2012 1:11 PM EDT

A few days ago, a New York Times reporter admitted the shameful truth that he had never learned to swim. Today, a Times reporter admits the shameful truth that he never learned to ride a bike. But now he's finally getting with the program:

The quest began on Saturday, with an adult education class offered by Bike New York, the city’s education partner for the bike-share program. My family was dubious. My parents’ efforts had failed after all, though they had done their part, buying me my own bike as a child and giving me lessons on the esplanade in Battery Park City. I never saw the point. I could already walk to the park from our apartment. As a last resort, teaching was later outsourced to a friend’s father, who failed at least as miserably.

“You know I love you and think you’re great,” my mother said in a recent interview. “You never really did well with the turning.”

I guess this could become a whole genre. In my case, difficulty with both swimming and bike riding seem pretty alien, since I learned both practically with no effort at a young age ("maybe a day or two" on the bicycle front, according to my mother) — and this despite my roughly 10th percentile aptitude at all things requiring physical coordination. Still, we all have our own demons. For example, I keep thinking that someday I should learn to use chopsticks. I've just never gotten the hang of it, and since restaurants will always bring me a fork if I ask, it's never been a high priority. Still, maybe someday I'll tackle it and write a five-part blog post about the experience. I'll bet you can't wait, can you?

PolitiFact Delivers a Peculiar Half-Truth

| Fri Aug. 10, 2012 11:16 AM EDT

A new ad from the Obama campaign makes the following claim: "Mitt Romney made $20 million in 2010, but paid only 14 percent in taxes — probably less than you." Is this true? PolitiFact comes to the following odd conclusion:

There are two main ways to make this calculation, and they lead to opposite conclusions. While we believe that including payroll taxes in the calculation offers a more accurate picture of what the American public pays the IRS, it's also true that the Obama ad didn't specify which measurement it was using, and in fact used a figure for Romney  14 percent  that was based on income taxes alone. On balance, then, we rate the claim Half True.

If it were true that the Obama campaign used one number for Romney — federal income taxes paid — and used a different number for everyone else — income taxes plus payroll taxes — PolitiFact would have a point. But what makes them think this is what the Obama campaign did? According to his most recent tax return, Romney paid 13.89% in federal income taxes. If you add in the payroll taxes he paid, that number probably rises to about 13.95%. In other words, 14%, which is the number the Obama campaign used. And as PolitiFact itself concludes, that's less than most taxpayers pay in total federal taxes.

So why does PolitiFact claim that Obama used two different tax calculations? I don't think he did, and if PolitiFact agrees that including payroll taxes offers a better picture of total federal tax liability — as they say they do — then Obama's ad is 100% defensible and accurate. Am I missing something here?

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Why You Pay More for Pampers Than the Person Standing Right Next to You

| Fri Aug. 10, 2012 10:50 AM EDT

Here's the latest dispatch from the brave new world of retail:

Catalina, a marketing company that tracks billions of purchases each year, is using a shopper’s location in store aisles to refine offers. Last year, Stop & Shop’s Ahold division introduced a mobile app, now run by Catalina, that allows shoppers to scan products. When they do, Catalina identifies them through their frequent shopper number or phone number, and knows where in the store they are. Special e-coupons are created on the spot.

“If someone is in the baby aisle and they just purchased diapers,” said Todd Morris, an executive vice president at Catalina, “we might present to them at that point a baby formula or baby food that might be based on the age of their baby and what food the baby might be ready for.”

As a person who loathes loyalty cards, you can imagine what I think of this. Actually, though, it doesn't raise my heartburn level too much higher than it already is. It's just the electronic equivalent of stationing someone who gives out free samples at strategic places in the store. Still, pretty fascinating, no? You can now just wander the aisles and get offered different coupons depending on where you are and what you've purchased previously.

Generally speaking, though, my big problem with this kind of thing is summarized in this sentence from the story: "Retailers are counting on most people accepting the trade-off if it means they get a better price for a product they want." But if someone is getting a better price, then someone else is getting a worse price. And price discrimination is getting bigger all the time. Here's a wee story.

A couple of years ago I was shopping a little ways away from my usual haunts. But there was a Petco nearby and I remembered I needed cat litter. So I dropped in and grabbed a box. "Do you want to sign up for our card?" asked the checker. No thanks. "Are you sure? You can save a lot of money?" No, no, just sell me the litter. So he did, I tossed it in the car, and drove off.

And then did a double take halfway out of the parking lot. Just how much did that stuff cost me? I looked at the receipt, and it was about 50% more than the price I usually paid at the supermarket. (That's 50% more than the everyday price, not some special sale price.) I hadn't noticed because, of course, the loyalty card price had been prominently displayed and the regular price was listed underneath in small type. And anyway, I don't buy cat litter often enough for the usual price to be etched into my consciousness.

When the difference in price is 5%, that's one thing. But the non-loyalty penalty seems to be getting bigger all the time, and this means that, for all practical purposes, you can only shop at stores where you have a loyalty card. If you just dash into some random place, there's a good chance you're going to get robbed.

This is the price we pay for the loyalty card revolution. If it actually saved us all money, maybe that would be an acceptable price to pay. But you all know that's a mirage, right? The aggregate price that supermarkets charge is about the same as it would be without loyalty cards. How could it not be? So now our shopping choices are restricted; we have to jump through a growing number of hoops to get the best pricing (it's not just clipping coupons anymore!); anyone who's not especially computer savvy is routinely ripped off; and gigabytes of your personal consumption data is available to anyone willing to pay a few pennies for it. What's not to like?

Healthcare Costs are Slowing Down

| Fri Aug. 10, 2012 9:57 AM EDT

Via Sarah Kliff, a team of researchers suggests that U.S. healthcare costs really are slowing down — and they've been slowing down since well before the current economic downturn. The data is noisy, but it fits with other studies suggesting an even longer term slowing of healthcare costs. Sarah has more at the link.

How Your Water Company May Be Poisoning Your Kids

| Fri Aug. 10, 2012 5:01 AM EDT

Historically, there have been four main sources of lead poisoning: paint, gasoline, tin cans, and water pipes. Lead paint was banned years ago, though old paint still remains a hazard in old housing, particularly in window sills. Leaded gasoline is no longer sold, and its only remaining threat is via old lead deposited in soil, especially in urban areas. Tin cans haven't used lead sealant for decades.

And water pipes—well, they've never been the most important source of lead poisoning, but they've been the most resistant to change. Thousands of miles of lead pipe are still in service, and as Sheila Kaplan and Corbin Hiar report this week, efforts to fix them have not just run aground, but possibly even made things worse.

The EPA wrote a rule in 1991 that forced water utilities to control lead levels, if necessary by replacing pipes. But the utilities sued, saying they didn't have the legal authority to replace the portions of pipe on private property—that is, the last 40 or 50 feet of pipe leading into homes. Eventually EPA backed down, but their solution may have just made the problem worse:

After years of industry lobbying, the agency amended its rule in 2000 to permit the utilities to perform so-called "partial pipe replacements," from the water main to the private property line. In the vast majority of cases, homeowners would be responsible for paying to finish the job.

Few homeowners have done so, to their detriment…Partial pipe replacements can physically shake loose lead fragments that have built up and laid dormant inside the pipe, pushing them into the homeowners' water, and spiking the lead levels, even where they previously were not high. In addition, the type of partial replacement that joins old lead pipes to new copper ones, using brass fittings, "spurs galvanic corrosion that can dramatically increase the amount of lead released into drinking water supplies," according to research from Washington University. Similar findings have been published by researchers at the Virginia Tech and elsewhere.

So why are these partial pipe replacements still commonplace?

One reason is that it's expensive to replace a homeowner's section of pipe. But another reason is that a lot of water customers don't know the danger that partial pipe replacement poses. Utilities are required to provide only vague warnings when they do mandatory replacements, which is bad enough. But the vast majority of partial pipe replacements aren't mandatory. They're just part of normal maintenance procedures:

The level of warning the 13 water companies made dropped even further when the same utilities were conducting routine voluntary replacements during roadwork or to fix leaks—essentially the same procedure, but not ordered under the law. Only around half of the utilities alert residents to the potential for lead levels to spike after a voluntary partial pipe replacement.

Part of the reason these utilities don't give the same warnings when doing basically the same procedure is that they're not required to. EPA offers no guidance for these far more common voluntary partial lead service line replacements done by utilities across the country.

Likely as a result, the vast majority of other U.S. cities that are not under EPA orders to replace their remnant lead pipe systems rarely give any warnings to their customers about lead levels spiking after they do voluntary partial service line replacements.

Full-scale lead removal from the environment would be expensive. It would mean cleaning up all the lead suspended in soil, retrofitting millions of old window fittings, and replacing thousands of miles of lead pipe. But the costs of lead poisoning are enormous too. We've known for a long time that high levels of blood lead in children are dangerous, but more recent research shows that the biggest effects actually come at the smallest levels. That is, the amount of damage is bigger going from 0 to 5 mg/dl than from 5 to 10. And that in turn is bigger than going from 10 to 20. So even if lead levels have been reduced significantly over the past few decades—and they have—there are still huge benefits from getting rid of the last remnants.

Harry Reid Quintuples Down

| Thu Aug. 9, 2012 6:13 PM EDT

Or whatever he's up to now. Via the Huffington Post, here's the latest on the identity of the person who supposedly told Reid that Mitt Romney didn't pay any taxes for ten years:

"This person is an investor in Bain Capital, a Republican also, and somebody who has been dealing with Romney's company for a long, long time and he has direct knowledge of this," said Reid aide Jose Parra, referring to Romney's tax returns.

It's the "direct knowledge" part that's key, of course. It's also the part I find least likely.

In any case, I wonder where this is headed? Reid can't keep playing Twenty Questions forever, can he? At some point he's got to either back off or else produce the guy. Until then, though, this is quite the little Deep Throat he's stringing us along with.