Kevin Drum - August 2012

Tax Pandering Reaches Olympic Heights

| Wed Aug. 8, 2012 11:50 AM EDT

Matt Yglesias tells me something I didn't know today:

If they gave out awards for dumb new policy ideas, President Obama and Republican rising star Sen. Marco Rubio would both be medaling this week. Their achievements? Rubio’s completely pointless bill offering a tax break to recipients of Olympic medals and—even worse—the president’s decision to hop on the bandwagon rather than show the country he has a firmer grasp on the issues than his adversaries do.

....With the president now on board, there’s a good chance Rubio’s idea will become law. In fiscal terms, the change will be minuscule. In terms of fairness, it seems like a strange slight to winners of other kinds of prizes. Are Olympic medalists worthier than winners of the Nobel or Pulitzer prizes? And of course exempting all prize income from income tax could merely encourage all kinds of people to restructure their income as prizes. The J.P. Morgan Memorial Prize for Achievement in Investment Banking, anyone?

I knew about Rubio's ridiculously panderific bill, but I didn't know Obama had endorsed it. Aren't election years great? And what luck for (summer) Olympians that they're getting saturation TV coverage precisely 90 days ahead of an election framed largely around tax rates! The Nobel prize winners aren't so lucky, but who knows? October isn't so bad either. Maybe they can whomp up a nice PR campaign right around the time of the presidential debates. After all, Nobel prize winners have a much stronger claim to being "job creators" than a bunch of jocks.

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Our Hobbesian Future

| Wed Aug. 8, 2012 11:17 AM EDT

Jonathan Zasloff thinks I'm wrong. He thinks Harry Reid really does have a credible source for his claim that Mitt Romney paid no taxes for ten years. I find this implausible in the extreme, but if Jonathan really does believe this, then it's fine to defend Reid. Unfortunately, he then goes on to make another point:

Second, let’s think for a moment: what if Reid actually were making up this source? So what? As I pointed out beforehand, Romney has the evidence that Reid or his supposed source is wrong, and it is totally reasonable to ask Romney to release his taxes as have all candidates for the last 40 years.

....What precisely is contemptible? That Reid is using a more specific claim to get Romney to do something that every candidate for the last 40 years has done? That he has made his claim more specific? That instead of saying “I bet Romney paid no taxes” he is saying “someone credible told me that Romney paid no taxes”? When Romney himself could disprove it easily by simply adhering to the same rules of conduct that everyone else does? That is what is so contemptible? In an election being waged over the attempt to create permanent plutocratic/theocratic domination of the country?

This is bad stuff. If we're at the point where both sides publicly hold that it's defensible to simply make stuff up because the stakes are so high, we've abandoned all pretense of caring about the truth. Nor is the idea that it's defensible to make up any charge as long as it's somehow rebuttable much better.

I'm not even sure how to react to my critics anymore. When a bare minimal standard of decency (no flatly invented stories) is widely mocked as pearl clutching and fainting couch-y, there aren't really any standards left aside from "whatever works." All I know is that I want no part of that.

By the way, it's really not true that every candidate for the past 40 years has released all their relevant tax information. John McCain released only a couple of years of returns, and released none of his wife's returns even though that's where the vast majority of his family's wealth lies. Likewise, John Kerry never released his wife's returns, which accounted for the vast majority of his family's wealth. I agree that Romney should release more of his tax returns, and I think it's fine for Democrats to beat him up about it. But let's keep our facts straight.

People Just Don't Like Mitt Romney, Part 34

| Wed Aug. 8, 2012 1:16 AM EDT

According to a new Washington Post/ABC News poll, Mitt Romney still isn't doing well in the "connecting with other humans" department:

Mitt Romney is laboring under the lowest personal popularity ratings for a presumptive presidential nominee in midsummer election-year polls back to 1984....Forty percent of Americans overall view Romney favorably, 49 percent unfavorably....A new high of 30 percent now see him “strongly” unfavorably, nearly double his strongly favorable score

Romney got a nice bounce upward after the primary battles ended in April, but he's started to slide back down over the past few weeks. The only good news for the Romney camp is that although Obama is far better liked than Romney among the general population, the gap is only seven percentage points among registered voters. So there's that to cling to.

Mitt Romney and His Mysterious $102 Million IRA

| Wed Aug. 8, 2012 12:18 AM EDT

This morning I blasted Harry Reid for inventing a story about a mysterious informant who told him that Mitt Romney hadn't paid any income taxes for the past ten years. One reason for thinking that Reid invented this is the sheer implausibility of Romney avoiding taxes for an entire decade. One year, maybe. Two years, still a possibility. But not ten.

I'm sticking to my guns on this, but there's now a sliver of doubt. Today, for the first time that I know of, someone has produced a reasonable-sounding scenario that explains how Romney might have paid either zero or close to zero in income taxes for eight years. It's related to Romney's $102 million IRA, something that's been tantalizing us ever since it showed up in his 2010 tax return. You can read it here.

Quote of the Day: The Upside of Looming Nuclear Annihilation

| Tue Aug. 7, 2012 9:29 PM EDT

From Will Wilkinson, on being bored with the news over the past week or two:

Say what you will about the looming risk of total nuclear annihilation, it kept the Olympics interesting.

Will just moved to Houston, so the rest of the post is about the Houston media's frenzied coverage of the Chick-fil-A controversy.

The Problem With Idioms

| Tue Aug. 7, 2012 6:14 PM EDT

From the annals of misunderstood idioms, Business Insider brings us an email from a guy applying to be a Wall Street trader. He was asked to add a bit of color to his application, so he sent back a reply with various sections highlighted in different colors.

This reminds me of a new guy who was hired to work for me back when I ran a Radio Shack store in the early 80s (hiring was done by a central office in each district, so I hadn't met him before). He dropped in to introduce himself, and I told him I wanted him to come in from 10 to 6 the next day. When I showed up at 9:30, he was already waiting. "You didn't need to come early," I said. "I'm just going to do a bit of paperwork before I open the store."

"Early?" he asked. "You told me to come in at 10 to 6." Turns out he had been waiting in the parking lot for me since 5:50 am. This wasn't my fault or anything, but I've always felt a little bad about it ever since.

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Cats Continue Their Ongoing War Against Birds

| Tue Aug. 7, 2012 5:36 PM EDT

Yet another study has been done investigating the shocking allegation that cats kill lots of birds:

“I think it will be impossible to deny the ongoing slaughter of wildlife by outdoor cats given the videotape documentation and the scientific credibility that this study brings,” said Michael Hutchins, Executive Director/CEO of The Wildlife Society.

Yes indeed, the slaughter of wildlife. But there's not much new here. The investigators attached cameras to a bunch of cats and then counted how many critters they killed. The lead author calls the results "surprising," and the press release from the American Bird Conservancy says the study shows that house cats kill "far more than the previous estimate of a billion birds and other animals each year."

That might be true on the "other animals" front, but not on the bird front. A year ago the American Bird Conservancy estimated that cats killed 500 million birds per year. The new study says that cats kill....500 million birds per year. Last year I looked into this and concluded that this probably represents about 3% of all birds in the United States. There's more to it than just that (cats might have a bigger impact on specific species in specific places, for example), and you can decide for yourself whether 3% is a lot or a little. Either way, though, this study doesn't seem to change things much.

ALSO: Judicial notice is hereby taken that birds make up only 13% of total feline kills. But nobody seems to care much about the other 87%. Why is that? Apparently lizards, voles, chipmunks, birds, frogs, and small snakes don't have a very strong lobbying presence.

Mitt Romney Doubles Down on Opposition to Obama's Support of Welfare Queens

| Tue Aug. 7, 2012 2:56 PM EDT

A few decades ago (in blog time — that's a couple of weeks ago in ordinary time) Republicans were making hay with a charge that President Obama was "gutting" the work requirement of welfare reform by agreeing to consider waiver requests from various states. Never mind that some of the requests came from Republican governors, and never mind that the goal of the waivers was to increase the number of welfare recipients who transition into jobs ("Governors must commit that their proposals will move at least 20% more people from welfare to work compared to the state's past performance," HHS secretary Kathleen Sebelius confirmed in a letter). None of that mattered. Obama was gutting work requirements in obvious solidarity with welfare queens and strapping young bucks everywhere.

Anyway, I thought it was a three-day kind of eruption that had since died away. But no! Ed Kilgore tells me that this has become the latest centerpiece of Mitt Romney's campaign. He provides us with some history:

This is kind of personal with me. I worked on welfare policy back in the 90s at the Progressive Policy Institute, which was the absolute hotbed of "work first" approaches to welfare reform. [This was back when Ed was an evil neoliberal. –ed.] Indeed, we were about the only people in the non-technical chattering classes who seemed to understand the distinction between the Clinton administration's philosophy of welfare reform (aimed at getting welfare recipients into private-sector jobs, not just through work requirements but with robust "making work pay" supports like an expanded EITC, which was enacted at Clinton's insistence well before welfare reform) and that of congressional Republicans (House Republicans were mainly concerned about punishing illegitimacy and denying assistance to legal immigrants, while Senate Republicans enacted a bill that was just a straight block grant that let states do whatever they wanted so long as they saved the feds money).

I mention this ancient history to point out the rich irony of conservatives now attacking Obama for an alleged hostility to the private-sector job placement emphasis they never gave a damn about, and for giving states more flexibility in administering the federal cash assistance program, which GOPers at every level of government (including Mitt Romney) were clamoring for loudly before, during and after the 1996 debate.

There's a technical question underlying all this that relates to HHS's legal basis for considering these waivers, and I don't really have an informed opinion about that. But Romney's latest ad states flatly that Obama plans to gut welfare reform by "dropping work requirements." What's more, "Under Obama's plan, you wouldn't have to work and wouldn't have to train for a job. They just send you your welfare check."

This takes a shameless distortion and turns it into an outright falsehood. There's no Obama plan in the first place; there's certainly no plan to "drop" work requirements; and Sebelius has been crystal clear that the only waivers that will even be considered are ones that measurably increase the transition from welfare to work. Perhaps PolitiFact would care to weigh in on this?

Why Aurora Got More Media Attention Than Oak Creek

| Tue Aug. 7, 2012 12:59 PM EDT

I don't spend a lot of time on this blog commenting on things like mass shootings. But a lot of people do, at least when it happens in a movie theater in Aurora and the victims are folks like you and me. But when it happens in Oak Creek and the victims aren't so much like you and me? Robert Wright points out today that the media (and social media) coverage of the Sikh temple shootings has been way less intense than the coverage of the Aurora shootings:

On twitter and blogs and many web sites, the difference in intensity of coverage between Aurora and Oak Creek seems to me close to an order of magnitude. (On some traditional news sites—e.g. the New York Times—the difference seems significant but not so vast.)

Some of this can be accounted for by the number of deaths—twelve vs. six—and maybe some of it by the theatricality of the Batman murders. But I think some of it has to do with the fact that the people who shape discourse in this country by and large aren't Sikhs and don't know many if any Sikhs. They can imagine their friends and relatives—and themselves—being at a theater watching a Batman movie; they can't imagine being in a Sikh temple.

This isn't meant as a scathing indictment; it's only natural to get freaked out by threats in proportion to how threatening they seem to you personally. At the same time, one responsibility of journalists and pundits is to see things in terms of their larger social significance. And it seems to me that the Sikh temple shooting, viewed in that context, is at least as frightening as the Aurora massacre. This was violence across ethnic lines, and that kind of violence has a long history of eroding and even destroying social fabric.

The whole thing is worth a read. Also, a question for commenters: Is Wright's observation equally true for television? Has the coverage of the Sikh temple massacre on Fox and CNN and MSNBC been lighter than it was for the Aurora massacre? I don't watch enough TV to have a good idea.

Louisiana Schools All Set to Become Subsidiaries of Christian Church

| Tue Aug. 7, 2012 12:38 PM EDT

Over at Blue Marble (I'm not sure what it's doing there, but whatever), Deanna Pan regales us with 14 wacky facts that Louisiana kids will soon be taught on the public dime now that Gov. Bobby Jindal's new voucher program is poised to go into effect. There's lots of good stuff there, but since I'm a product of the New Math, I got the biggest kick out of this one:

11. Abstract algebra is too dang complicated: "Unlike the "modern math" theorists, who believe that mathematics is a creation of man and thus arbitrary and relative, A Beka Book teaches that the laws of mathematics are a creation of God and thus absolute....A Beka Book provides attractive, legible, and workable traditional mathematics texts that are not burdened with modern theories such as set theory." - ABeka.com

Teaching set theory to fourth graders in the 1960s probably wasn't the greatest idea in the world, but not because set theory is either "modern" or "arbitrary and relative." It just turned out not to have much to do with teaching kids how to add and subtract. Still, it's true that the foundations of modern math are fundamentally based on axioms that can change depending on which ones seem the most useful. And a good thing too, unless you think Einstein's theory of relativity is some God-denying conspiracy against Euclid's fifth postulate. Which these guys might. Who knows?

In any case — and to change the subject entirely — this is why Bobby Jindal is my semi-dark horse pick to be Mitt Romney's running mate. I know he's got a few things in his background that might be troublesome, but nothing too bad. And he's got a lot going for him: tea party cred, good speaking skills, not a boring white guy, gives conservatives a chance to show they're OK with dark-skinned politicians, and — well, stuff like his voucher program, which he hasn't backed down on despite plenty of withering criticism of all the money that will end up in the pockets of fly-by-night Christian schools. True conservatives take that as a badge of honor, not a criticism, and so does Jindal.

In any case, he's my current guess. Put your guess in comments, but do it quickly if you want full Nostradamus credit.

UPDATE: My guess that this was all related to conservative animus toward the New Math along with philosophical opposition to Hilbert's program is, apparently, wrong. Maggie Koerth-Baker has a much more parsimonious and knowledgable explanation here. It's also far more entertaining! Apparently poor old Georg Cantor is the villain in this story.

I admit that my original theory (New Math + Hilbert) was sort of unlikely. But in this case, it turns out that its big problem is that it wasn't unlikely enough. Go figure.