Kevin Drum - September 2012

Factlet of the Day: Prosecuting Bribery Leads to More Prosecutions for Bribery

| Tue Sep. 4, 2012 11:15 AM EDT

Here's a fascinating little factlet. The New York Times reports today that most big prosecutions under America's anti-bribery law are against foreign companies. Siemens, for example, paid a fine of $800 million even though it's a German company and the bribes in question were paid to Argentinians. Their American presence, however, was big enough to make them liable under U.S. law. American companies argue that this is a matter of leveling the playing field: they're at a disadvantage competing against companies that feel free to pay bribes, so they're eager for the Department of Justice to use its authority to put a stop to it.

But Henry Farrell points to a paper that concludes that these prosecutions also have a knock-on effect:

Holding all other variables constant, the odds of a country enforcing its first case [of bribery] are twenty times greater if a country has experienced extraterritorial application of the FCPA as compared to countries that have not.

"In other words," says Henry, "many countries that have anti-bribery legislation on their books are disinclined to enforce this legislation against their firms, until the US makes an issue of prosecuting their firms for them. This results in a remarkably large rise in the likelihood of subsequent enforcement."

I have no broader point to make about this at the moment. I just thought it was interesting.

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My Personal Stake in the Election

| Tue Sep. 4, 2012 10:16 AM EDT

Ramesh Ponnuru writes today that if Barack Obama wins reelection, nothing will change. Republicans will not feel chastened one bit. Instead, they'll conclude that they can't win with a faux conservative like Romney, and will spend the next four years amping up the obstruction machine while they wait for Paul Ryan or Marco Rubio to save them. It will be gridlock as far as the eye can see.

I think he's probably right. For the most part, the American public has a choice this November between four years of Republican radicalism and four years of nothing much changing. But Ed Kilgore points out at least one major change that Americans can expect if Obama is reelected:

For the record, there's at least one area of highly significant, powerful activity that will occur automatically if Barack Obama is re-elected, even if Republicans make congressional gains and convince themselves to go even crazier: the Affordable Care Act will be implemented, and 30 million or so Americans without health insurance will be covered, making the big step back towards "individual responsibility" for health care conservatives crave that much less likely.

This is true. And here's an interesting thing: for the first time that I can remember, this means that I have a personal stake in the election. It's not just that I find one side's policies more congenial in the abstract, but that one policy in particular could have a substantial impact on my life.

You see, I've never really intended to keep blogging until I'm 65. I might, of course. Blogging is a pretty nice job. But I'd really like to have a choice, and without Obamacare I probably won't. That's because I'm normal: I'm in my mid-50s, I have high blood pressure and high cholesterol, a family history of heart trouble, and a variety of other smallish ailments. Nothing serious, but serious enough that it's unlikely any insurance company would ever take me on. So if I decided to quit blogging when I turned 60, I'd be out of luck. I couldn't afford to be entirely without health insurance (the 4x multiplier that hospitals charge the uninsured would doom me all by itself), and no one would sell me an individual policy. I could try navigating the high-risk pool labyrinth, but that's a crapshoot. Maybe it would work, maybe it wouldn't.

But if Obamacare stays on the books, I have all the flexibility in the world. If I want to keep working, I keep working. If I don't, I head off to the exchange and buy a policy that suits me. No muss, no fuss.

So yes, this election matters, and it matters in a very personal way. It does to me, anyway. It's not just about gridlock as far as the eye can see.

Paul Ryan Is a Tax Hawk, Not a Deficit Hawk

| Tue Sep. 4, 2012 8:23 AM EDT

Are Republicans—and in particular, Paul Ryan—dedicated deficit hawks? Let's make this simple. Here's a timeline:

2001-08: Republicans, including Ryan, repeatedly vote to increase the deficit during the George Bush administration. This includes votes in favor of two huge tax cuts, two huge wars, and a big Medicare expansion, none of which are paid for.

January 20, 2009: Barack Obama is inaugurated.

October 2009: After nine months of focusing on stimulus and job creation, Obama begins his famous "pivot" toward long-term deficit reduction.

January 2010: A Senate proposal to create a bipartisan deficit commission is filibustered. Politico explains what happened: "The tepid support from Democratic leaders contributed to the loss, but more decisive was the number of Republicans switching under pressure from their party to block the measure. Six Republicans who had co-sponsored the bill as recently as last month voted against it."

One day later: In his State of the Union address, Obama announces that he'll act on his own: "I've called for a bipartisan fiscal commission, modeled on a proposal by Republican Judd Gregg and Democrat Kent Conrad....Yesterday, the Senate blocked a bill that would have created this commission. So I'll issue an executive order that will allow us to go forward, because I refuse to pass this problem on to another generation of Americans." This is the birth of the Bowles-Simpson Commission.

March 2010: Republicans appoint six members to the commission. One of them is Paul Ryan.

December, 2010: The Bowles-Simpson commission fails to agree on a plan. All three of the House Republican appointees vote against it, including Paul Ryan.

July 9, 2011: House Speaker John Boehner abandons negotiations with President Obama over an ambitious plan to cut the deficit by $4 trillion. The Washington Post explains why: "Boehner (R-Ohio) told Obama that their plan to 'go big'....was crumbling under Obama’s insistence on significant new tax revenue." One of the key opponents of compromise on taxes was Paul Ryan.

July 22, 2011: Boehner abandons yet another set of deficit negotiations when it becomes clear that House Republicans won't support tax increases of any kind. Sam Stein quotes a Republican aide explaining that Ryan was, once again, one of the key opponents: "There were certain people ... who thought the pursuit of the grand bargain was a useless pursuit because it could never pass anyway. Ryan was one of them. Ryan is opposed to tax increases."

August 2012: The Romney/Ryan campaign explicitly endorses tax cuts, but declines to take a stand on how they would pay for this by closing tax loopholes. The campaign also explicitly rejects any cuts in defense spending. Their Medicare plan proposes no cuts at all for a decade, and after that it proposes the same growth rate cap as Obamacare. However, unlike Obamacare, it doesn't include any plausible mechanisms for meeting that cap. Social Security reform is not addressed at all.

Actions speak louder than words, and I think you can draw your own conclusions from Ryan's actions. Aside from a fondness for scary charts, there's really nothing in his career that demonstrates any serious concern with the deficit. What he has demonstrated is consistent opposition to tax increases under any and all circumstances. I think you can also fairly say that he has no problem with spending cuts to social programs.

So that's that. Ryan wants to cut taxes on the rich and cut spending on the poor. That's his real preoccupation, not deficit reduction.

Presidential Campaigns Will Soon Be Done Entirely in CGI

| Mon Sep. 3, 2012 11:43 PM EDT

Dylan Byers reports today on an open secret: the 2012 campaign is a relentless, joyless exercise in trench warfare, and reporters hate it. So what's the solution?

Some reporters believe it is just a matter of waiting out 2012 in hopes that 2016 will see the return of 2008-level excitement....Others fear that with every election cycle, campaigns are further battening down the hatches, setting precedents of media control that ultimately render the media powerless to do anything but wait at the mercy of a scripted quote, like dogs waiting for scraps.

Bingo. This has been going on for years, and it's accelerated dramatically over the past decade or two. With every campaign, candidates push the envelope a little more, testing the boundaries of how far they can restrict press access. The answer, I think, is pretty plain: they could literally allow the press no access at all and it wouldn't hurt them. The only reason they still allow the little bit they do is inertia. Despite all the evidence to the contrary, they still find it hard to believe they could really get away with shutting out reporters completely.

But they could. The mainstream media, by its own rules, isn't really allowed to gripe about access, and anyway, nobody listens when they do. What's more, the days when candidates needed press coverage are now gone. During the primaries, when money is still scarce, it's a different story: free media attention is still a valuable commodity. But once the general election campaign starts, campaigns can reach everyone they need to reach, more safely and with more pinpoint control, via partisan media, television ads, data mining, debates, short hits on local TV, and social media. In those forums, they can pretty much say anything they want, without having to field any embarrassing questions about whether they have their facts right and without fear of inadvertent gaffes. The truth is that the downside risk of talking to reporters is now greater than the upside benefit of the coverage they give you.

This dynamic has already gone pretty far. John McCain and Barack Obama both ran very buttoned-up campaigns in 2008, and this year both Romney and Obama are famous for their spectacular lack of availability to the national press corps. They do occasional formal sit-down interviews, which are pretty safe, and — maybe — take a few questions a month. That's it. And guess what? The sky hasn't fallen. It turns out they can get away with it just fine.

By 2020 campaigns will be like studio bands that never do live shows. They'll be conducted entirely in a bubble, with national reporters allowed no access whatsoever. Doesn't that sound like fun?

Paul Ryan is the Latest in a String of Honest Men Who Weren't

| Mon Sep. 3, 2012 11:49 AM EDT

Liberals have spent the past year complaining that Paul Ryan isn't the courageous truth-teller that the press corps has made him out to be. Today, Bob Somerby reminds us that Ryan is hardly the first to get this treatment:

For the past twenty years, the press corps has invented a string of Most Honest Men:

Paul Tsongas, Bill Bradley, Saint John McCain? All were pronounced The Most Honest Man—and all were soon issuing gruesome and weird misstatements.

Colin Powell was The World's Most Honest Man too. After that, he made that peculiar presentation at the UN!

On the bright side, the press corps seems to have caught on to Ryan's flimflammery a little bit faster than usual. On the not-so-bright side, I can't tell if this is because the press corps has gotten better or because Ryan's schtick is more transparent than his predecessors'. Unfortunately, it's probably the latter. You have to keep the blinders pretty firmly attached these days to keep buying Ryan's particular brand of happy talk.

The Incredible Vanishing GOP Convention Bounce

| Mon Sep. 3, 2012 11:11 AM EDT

Gallup is out with a post-convention poll asking people whether last week's festivities in Tampa have made them more likely or less likely to vote for Mitt Romney. Answer: 40% are more likely, 38% are less likely. This is a net bounce of 2 percentage points, the lowest since Gallup started tracking this question a quarter of a century ago.

The chart on the right shows the net bounce for most conventions going back to 1984. What I found most interesting is that aside from two outliers with gigantic bounces, every convention has produced a bounce of about 15 percentage points. Every convention, that is, until you get to Republican conventions in the Bush era and beyond. Ever since W stamped his imprint on the GOP, their convention bounces have been nearly invisible. Apparently, putting themselves on display to the American public simply doesn't make a positive impression anymore.

Those of us who are liberal hacks will have an obvious reaction: No kidding. Is it any wonder that the American public doesn't get the warm and fuzzies from watching the parade of rabid true believers that make up today's GOP? Still, it's kind of curious, isn't it?

In other news, Gallup reports that Romney's acceptance speech was the most poorly received of any speech since they started keeping track in 1996. In fact, it wasn't even close. The net positive rating for Romney was nine points lower than the previous worst speaker (John McCain) and a full 13 points lower than the pre-Romney average. Ouch.

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Myth Busting: The Greenspan Commission Didn't Save Social Security

| Mon Sep. 3, 2012 10:16 AM EDT

I don't have a news hook for a post about the Greenspan Social Security Commission of 1983, but I was Googling around this morning for something else and happened to come across an old post from Pete Davis on the subject. The conventional wisdom about the Greenspan Commission is that it beavered away diligently for several months, produced a bipartisan plan to save Social Security from bankruptcy, and Congress passed it. Hooray! But Davis says this version of events is 180 degrees backward:

Mr. Greenspan and his fellow commissioners had met for months and were secretly deadlocked, despite optimistic public statements. Members of Congress were uniformly terrified of raising payroll taxes or cutting benefits, both of which obviously had to be part of any real solution. Then, one late afternoon, Pat Moynihan (D-NY) walked across the floor to talk to Senate Finance Committee Chair Bob Dole (R-KS). I couldn't hear what they were saying, but it didn't take a rocket scientist to realize the topic was Social Security. They cut the deal in broad outline right there, fed it to Mr. Greenspan, and left the details to his Commission.

So at the last minute, Republicans and Democrats locked arms around a plan "to save Social Security" by raising the payroll tax, to shave benefits, and to very gradually raise the retirement age on future retirees. President Reagan endorsed it, and the rest was history. Like a lot of bad economic theory, the idea that the Greenspan Commission solved the 1983 Social Security crisis has the causality backwards. Dole and Moynihan fed the deal to the Commission, not the other way around.

Then, in comments, Marc Goldwein says that even this account is too friendly to the Greenspan Commission:

Great blog post on how the 1983 commission was a cover. But even this post, I'm afraid, perpetuates some of the myth.

As of the beginning on 1983, the commission was all but dissolved. Understanding the dire political importance of not letting the trust fund run out of money, the White House then began a series of secret negotiations with Pat Moynihan and Former SSA Director Robert Ball (who was basically representing Tip O'Neill). I believe the White House representatives were David Stockman, Dick Darman, sometimes Kenneth Duberstein, and a fourth person.

Once they had agreed to a basic framework, then Dole was brought in, along with Alan Greenspan, James Baker, and Barber Conable. That group of nine or ten was eventually expanded further, to make sure they'd have the support of the leadership, organized labor, and enough commissioners.

Only then were the recommendations brought back to the commission to pass.

I don't have any particular political point to make here. This just happens to be a piece of political mythology that I'd always vaguely accepted without knowing much about what really happened behind the scenes, and I'll bet lots of other people believe it too. So I thought I'd pass along this little piece of myth busting.

Todd Akin is Slowly Recovering From His "Legitimate Rape" Gaffe

| Sun Sep. 2, 2012 1:08 PM EDT

Public Policy Polling has some new numbers for the Missouri Senate race:

PPP's newest poll of the Missouri Senate race finds that Todd Akin is weathering the storm and the contest remains a toss up. Claire McCaskill leads 45-44, just a small change from our poll last week which found Akin ahead by a 44-43 margin.

....53% of voters say that they accept Akin's apology for his comments last week to 40% who do not....Akin's favorability numbers are still poor with 33% of voters rating him favorably to 56% with a negative opinion. But that's up a net 11 points from our survey last Monday when it came down at 24/58. A lot of voters have already moved on from being disgusted with him over his comments.

I'm sort of torn about this. Obviously I think Akin is a creep and a troglodyte, and I wish the news were worse for him. On the other hand, I have a rare chance to be correct about a political prediction here. I figured Akin would stay in the race, and he has. I figured his "legitimate rape" gaffe would blow over, and it looks like it has. I figured that eventually Republicans would quietly get back on his side, and I think that's starting to happen. And finally, I figured that he'd end up winning. So far, the polling seems to suggest that he might very well.

Unfortunately, being right isn't always what it's cracked up to be. After all, Akin is still a creep and troglodyte. Here's hoping that my cynicism about the Missouri electorate turns out to be misplaced.

BONUS HOPE: There is, of course, a pretty decent chance that Akin isn't done saying stupid things. One more major-league screwup and he's toast.

We Should Focus on Deception, Not Lying

| Sun Sep. 2, 2012 12:41 PM EDT

Did Paul Ryan lie repeatedly in his acceptance speech last Wednesday, as countless fact-checking articles later claimed? Stephen Hayes thinks it's an unfair charge. "Here’s the funny thing about most of these articles," he says in the Weekly Standard today. "They fail to cite a single fact that Ryan misstated or lie that he told. In most cases, the self-described fact-checks are little more than complaints that Ryan failed to provide context for his criticism of Barack Obama."

He's right. There are two big problems with getting obsessed about "lies." The first is that it's usually too hard to prove. You have to show not only that something is unquestionably factually wrong, but that the speaker knew it was wrong. That's seldom possible. The second problem is that it's too narrow. Politicians try to mislead voters all the time, and only occasionally do they do this with flat-out lies. Bottom line: if you focus only on actual lies, you miss too much. But if you try to turn everything into a lie, you sound like a hack.

A better approach is to focus instead on attempts to mislead. But how do you judge that? A few years ago I developed a three-part test that I use to check my immediate emotional reaction to things politicians say. I've found it pretty useful in practice, though it's not perfect and it doesn't apply to every kind of slippery statement. Here it is:

  1. What was the speaker trying to imply? This is necessarily a judgment call, but it's what gets us away from "lying" and instead focuses our attention on how badly a speaker is trying to mislead us.
  2. What would it take to state things accurately? This is the most important part of the exercise. Without getting deep in the weeds (nobody expects politicians to speak in white paper-ese), what would it take to restate things reasonably accurately?
  3. How much would accuracy damage the speaker's point? Obviously, if accuracy dents the speaker's point only a bit, not much harm has been done. If it demolishes the speaker's point completely, it's as bad as an actual lie.

Here's an example from Ryan's speech, where he talked about the $716 billion "funneled out of Medicare by President Obama":

  1. He's implying that Obama reduced Medicare spending and this will hurt Medicare beneficiaries, something that Republicans oppose.
  2. A more defensible version might be something like this: "Obama has reduced payments to hospitals and private Medicare plans. This will lead to less service, lower quality, and fewer plan choices for seniors. Until a few weeks ago, I thought this was a good idea and proposed the same cuts in my budget, which was supported by 95% of the Republican caucus in the House."
  3. The first two sentences don't damage Ryan's point much at all. The third sentence is a major change that turns it completely on its head. On a scale of 1 to 10, where 10 is reserved for flat-out lies, this is about a 9. There's obviously a huge attempt to mislead here.

Here's another one. Ryan talked about Obama's 2008 visit to a GM plant in Janesville, where he told the workers, "I believe that if our government is there to support you ... this plant will be here for another hundred years." On Wednesday Ryan said: "Well, as it turned out, that plant didn’t last another year. It is locked up and empty to this day. And that’s how it is in so many towns today, where the recovery that was promised is nowhere in sight."

  1. He's implying that the plant closed on Obama's watch and that lots of other plants remain shuttered because the economy has remained weak.
  2. A more accurate version would go something like this: "That plant closed before Obama took office, and none of his bailouts or stimulus bills were able to bring it back to life. And that’s how it is in so many towns today, where the recovery that was promised is nowhere in sight."
  3. This is a small change, and frankly, it doesn't really change the emotional resonance of the sentence much. It's maybe a 2.

I chose these two examples for a reason. The first one, on examination, was worse than I thought. Obama did cut planned Medicare spending by $716 billion, so at first glance an accurate rephrasing didn't change Ryan's point much. But when I remembered that Ryan and the entire Republican caucus had supported those cuts just a few months ago, it was obvious that this was a major-league whopper — and there's simply no way to restate it without changing its impact completely. The attempt to mislead is enormous.

Conversely, the second example annoyed me a lot when I first heard it, but when I went through the exercise of writing a more accurate version, I realized that it didn't really change things much. The restated version has much the same impact as the original. There's an attempt to mislead here, but for most listeners it's fairly subtle.

It's Step 2 of this test that's key. You have to rewrite the offending statement to be defensibly accurate. Keep in mind that this doesn't mean rewriting conservative attacks to include every possible liberal talking point. This is a presidential campaign, not a graduate seminar. You need to do the absolute minimum it would take to make the statement tolerably defensible.

Needless to say, this doesn't work for everything. In Romney's infamous welfare ad, for example, he says that Obama is "dropping work requirements" and "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 actually is a flat-out lie, not merely an attempt to mislead. Beyond that, though, the real dirty work of the ad is the way it pushes obvious racial hot buttons, and that's simply not something you can judge on a scale of truthfulness vs. deceit.

Still, for many things, this test is useful. What's the minimum change it would take to keep the offending statement from being actively misleading? Once you've made the change, how much does it really change the emotional resonance of the statement? If you do an honest job of this, you might surprise yourself now and again.

Quote of the Day: Mitt Romney's Apology Tour

| Sun Sep. 2, 2012 9:52 AM EDT

"Hey," tweets Andrew Sprung, "Romney's kicked off an apology tour on behalf of the GOP." He chose Ohio to unveil his new schtick:

Mitt Romney said Saturday that his party had fallen short on its fiscal promises even as he campaigned alongside a top Republican congressional leader....“When we had the lead, we let people down,” Mr. Romney told a crowd in this important swing state. “We need to make sure” they are not let down again. “I will cut the deficit and get us on track to a balanced budget.”

You know who else thinks that Republicans have let us down? President Obama. Kudos to Romney for finally delivering a message that the American people can all rally around.