Kevin Drum - September 2012

National Reporters Should Learn to Be a Little Bit Ruder

| Mon Sep. 24, 2012 4:29 PM PDT

I was pretty unimpressed with the dueling 60 Minutes interviews with Mitt Romney and Barack Obama last night. Just for starters, any time a reporter vaguely summarizes what "your opponent" says and then asks, "How do you respond to that" — well, that deserves an immediate demotion to AA ball. It's ridiculously amateurish. And yet, that was Steve Kroft's very first question to Obama.

But I guess you could write that off as a pet peeve of mine. So instead let's take a look at a line of questioning that Scott Pelley used on Romney. This comes after he's noted that Romney is eager to explain his tax rate cuts in detail, but not so eager to explain which tax deductions he wants to eliminate to make up for the cuts:

Pelley: You're asking the American people to hire you as president of the United States. They'd like to hear some specifics.

Romney: Well, I can tell them specifically what my policy looks like. I will not raise taxes on middle income folks. I will not lower the share of taxes paid by high income individuals. And I will make sure that we bring down rates, we limit deductions and exemptions so we can keep the progressivity in the code, and we encourage growth in jobs.

Pelley: And the devil's in the details, though. What are we talking about, the mortgage deduction, the charitable deduction?

Romney: The devil's in the details. The angel is in the policy, which is creating more jobs.

Pelley: You have heard the criticism, I'm sure, that your campaign can be vague about some things. And I wonder if this isn't precisely one of those things?

Pelley's heart is in the right place, but come on. Romney has given this answer before. Pelley knew he was going to say this. So why not decide beforehand to get a little tougher? At the very least, suggest that Romney claims to be a leader, and the public has a right to know their leaders' preferences even if no one expects them to get 100 percent of what they ask for. Or, since you know that Romney won't say what he will ask for, try a series of questions that makes it plain what's on the table. Maybe something like this:

Pelley: Are there any deductions that you're not willing to consider eliminating? For example the home mortgage deduction?

Romney: Well, I'd want to consult with Congress....

Pelley: How about the charitable deduction? Is that off the table?

Romney: Nothing is off the table, Scott, but....

Pelley: Would you be willing to consider eliminating the tax exemption for health care benefits?

Romney: I'm willing to consider anything, but I don't have a set list in mind....

Pelley: Retirement income? State tax deductions? Are you open to eliminating any of these?

I understand that Romney's actual answers would be longer and more filibusterish than I've suggested, but there's no law that says a reporter can't interrupt if a candidate isn't being responsive. One way or another, though, if you already know that Romney isn't going to tell you what he will do, maybe you should at least try to get him on the record about what he won't do. Would pressing him on deduction after deduction be a little bit rude? A little bit aggressive? Sure. But isn't that what a 60 Minutes reporter should be?

And before anyone asks, yes, this goes for the interview with Obama too. Kroft challenged Obama in some of the right general areas, but his questions were so broad and so timidly phrased that Obama didn't even have to try hard to evade them. We learned almost nothing from either of these interviews.

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We Know How to Fight a Financial Crisis. We Should Be Doing It.

| Mon Sep. 24, 2012 2:41 PM PDT

Here's an interesting chart from Josh Lerner (via Tim Duy). Instead of comparing the Great Recession to other postwar recessions in the U.S. (which have mostly been ordinary business cycle recessions), it compares the Great Recession to other financial crises. This is a better comparison since the 2007-08 crash wasn't an ordinary business cycle recession. It was a financial crisis — and by that standard we haven't done too badly. As Lerner says, this is almost certainly because "the strong policy response employed by nearly all major economies — both monetary and fiscal — helped stop the economic free fall."

We could, of course, have done even more, and we still could. And should. The fact that this recession was provoked by a financial crisis is a reason to respond more strongly, not an excuse to throw up our hands and pretend that we don't have the tools to limit the damage.

Breaking: Republicans Like to Spend Lots of Money on the Military

| Mon Sep. 24, 2012 10:16 AM PDT

Stan Collender wants to shriek after reading a New York Times piece about George Allen:

Former Virginia Governor and Senator George Allen...used to campaign as someone who would make the hard choices and cut spending, that is, as a fiscal conservative. But as [Jonathan] Weisman's story definitively shows, Allen this year is campaigning against the $55 billion in military spending reductions that will occur if the sequester occurs as scheduled on January 2, 2013.

I understand: Allen is running for office in Virginia where federal spending is very important to the economy. But the former proudly self-professed fiscal conservative is now trying to run to the left of the Democrat by insisting that he would not have made the hard choices after all and that not a penny of the sequester spending reductions for the Pentagon should go into effect.

I'm not trying to pick on Stan here, but come on. Can we all stop pretending that we don't know what Republicans have always stood for? They've always been the party of cutting spending but not on the military. They've always been the party of small government except on defense. They've always been the party of keeping the government out of your life unless the subject is more cops and drug warriors.

Liberals endlessly try to score debating points on these topics, but it's kind of silly. Allen isn't running to the left. Republicans have always been the party of law and order and a strong military, and they've always been willing to spend lots of money on it. You can attack this as wrongheaded, but it's not some kind of inexplicable hypocrisy. Republicans are opposed to social spending, not defense spending. Always have been, always will be.

In Most of the Country, the White Working Class Likes President Obama Just Fine

| Mon Sep. 24, 2012 9:50 AM PDT

John Sides points out an important result from a recent survey of the white working class: Democrats in general, and Obama in particular, don't really have a huge "white working class problem." What they have is a huge Southern problem.

The chart on the right tells the story. In the West, Midwest, and Northeast, the white working class vote is fairly evenly split. Romney is slightly ahead in the West and Northeast, while Obama is slightly ahead in the Midwest. It's only in the South that the white working class vote is overwhelmingly Republican, and this is what skews the national results, which show Romney ahead 48%-35%.

This is a worthwhile corrective almost anytime you see a national result for any class of voters or any trend over the past 40 years. The massive shift of the Southern vote from Democratic to Republican is, by far, the biggest electoral change in the past few decades, and it often overwhelms national survey results. It's something you should always at least think about when you read an article about big changes in the electorate: is this really a national change, or is it mostly driven by changes in the South? This is important not just academically, but because if it turns out to be primarily a Southern problem, the solution is going to be a lot different than if it's truly a broad demographic shift.

The rest of the survey is here, and it's interesting throughout. It's worth a read.

Letting the Bush Tax Cuts for the Rich Expire Won't Hurt Job Growth

| Mon Sep. 24, 2012 9:15 AM PDT

Via Jared Bernstein, here's an interesting study from Owen Zidar at UC Berkeley. He examines the conclusions of Romer and Romer that tax increases hurt job growth, and concludes that once you tease apart the effects of tax changes on the rich vs. tax changes on the middle class, it turns out that tax changes on the rich have essentially no effect on job growth:

Figure 4 shows that there is not a relationship between tax changes for the top 10 percent and employment growth over a 2 year period. Overall, when considering all exogenous tax changes in the post-war period that went to the top 10 percent, the line that best fits the data is fairly flat and insignificant.

Figure 5, however, shows a substantially stronger relationship for the bottom 90 percent....Since tax changes for the top 10 percent are often correlated with tax changes for the bottom 90 percent [], the apparent slight relationship between tax changes for the top 10 percent and output growth seems to result from tax changes for the bottom 90 that have a stimulative effect and occur at the same time.

The two charts below show Zidar's results, and they're of more than just academic interest. If Barack Obama wins reelection, he'll have far more leverage to raise taxes on the rich than he's had before, because he can simply let the Bush tax cuts expire completely and then go back to Congress in January and propose new tax cuts that include only the middle class. Republicans can refuse to pass them, but that's a huge political loser since Obama will almost certainly be able to portray this as holding middle class tax cuts hostage to tax cuts for the GOP's rich pals. That leaves only the usual tired top-marginal-rate-trickle-down economic argument, and Zidar's results suggest that Obama doesn't need to worry about that either. Eliminating the Bush tax cuts on the rich probably won't affect job growth much at all.

Civics is Alive and Well in American High Schools

| Mon Sep. 24, 2012 7:32 AM PDT

Tom Edsall quotes some guy complaining that people are stupid these days because high schools don't teach civics anymore. "The students don’t know about civics, they don’t know about our history, our government, our constitution. Politicians say they are going to give people things for free to get elected." Atrios comments:

It's certainly possible it's true in some sense, in that there's no course of study actually called "civics" but it'd be nice if Edsall provided some judgment about whether this guy is just mainlining Limbaugh or if he has an actual point.

Say what? No course of study called civics? I took senior-year civics from Mr. Avis back in 1976 because I had to if I wanted to graduate, and the California minimum course requirements continue to include "a one-semester course in American government and civics." Ditto for Pennsylvania. Here's a PDF describing the civics requirement in detail for all grades, including high school.

Looks to me like civics is alive and well, and continues to be called "civics." So what's the problem?

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Football in Lo-Def Really Sucks

| Sat Sep. 22, 2012 4:54 PM PDT

For the first time in a couple of years I'm watching a football game in lo-def. It's like a big blur of colorful blobs moving randomly around the screen. It's hard to believe we used to watch games like this all the time.

And why am I watching a game in lo-def? Because the Pac-12, like every other major conference, decided last year that it wanted its own network. So now, instead of local games being shown on ESPN or CBS or ABC or Fox Sports or any of the other fine hi-def channels I already get, they're frequently shown on the Pac-12 network instead. My cable provider, however, doesn't provide the high-def version of the network with either their basic package, or their advanced package, or even their advanced premier package, which I have. They only provide it with the package that includes whole-home DVR. This is so obviously predatory that there's no way I'd sign up for it. But hey — I guess if the Pac-12 signs a $3 billion deal, then someone has to pony up that $3 billion.

Not me, though. Enough's enough.

POSTSCRIPT: I know, I know: whine, whine, whine. But it's a weekend, and it's my God-given right to whine about my cable carrier and the greediness of modern college sports. Feel free to add your own personal whines in comments.

One More Round on the YouTube Bleg

| Sat Sep. 22, 2012 12:29 PM PDT

I'm going to test everyone's patience by taking one last shot at seeing if anyone can solve my YouTube problem. To recap: several weeks ago YouTube videos stopped playing on my computer. I've uninstalled Flash completely and reinstalled it. I've tried going back to a previous version of Flash. I've dumped my cache. I've uninstalled and reinstalled my browser. Nothing has worked. Some YouTube videos play, while others simply display a blank black rectangle. I haven't been able to figure out any pattern that accounts for which ones play and which ones don't.

The obvious suspect is some kind of interaction between Flash and my Opera browser — and this is an especially good suspect since YouTube continues to work fine on Firefox. However, I don't really have a clue what the problem here could be, so instead I want to ask about something else. It turns out that if I manually change the URL of a YouTube video, replacing "watch" with "v," the URL is then redirected and the video plays in full screen mode. This works 100% of the time. So here's my question: does anyone have any idea what's happening here? What's the significance of "v" in a YouTube URL?

UPDATE: I'm still not sure about the "v" thing, but I seem to have obtained a fix for my problem. Thanks to commenter Rajeev Raizada for the pointer!

Mitt Romney's Cynical Tax Ruse

| Fri Sep. 21, 2012 3:12 PM PDT

So this afternoon's big news is that Mitt Romney finally released his 2011 taxes. He paid $1.9 million on $13.7 million in income, for an effective tax rate of 14.1%.

But there's more! His tax rate would have been about 9% or so, but he decided not to deduct all of his charitable contributions in order to get his tax rate up to 14%. Why? Here's the official statement:

“The Romneys [] limited their deduction of charitable contributions to conform to the governor’s statement in August, based upon the January estimate of income, that he paid at least 13 percent in income taxes in each of the last 10 years,” said R. Bradford Malt, Mr. Romney’s trustee.

Huh. So he did this specifically in order to fulfill his promise from August? Apparently so:

Campaign spokeswoman Michele Davis said in a statement that Romney “has been clear that no American need pay more than he or she owes under the law. At the same time, he was in the unique position of having made a commitment to the public that his tax rate would be above 13 percent. In order to be consistent with that statement, the Romneys limited their deduction of charitable contributions.”

This is....weird. Not that Romney would do this solely in order to avoid a single-digit tax rate that might be a political liability, but that he'd actually admit that he did it solely to avoid a single-digit tax rate that might be a political liability. Very odd. But I guess he felt like had no choice. There was no subtle way of increasing his tax bill that might go unnoticed, so that left only the charitable deduction dodge, something that reporters would obviously discover within minutes of paging through his return. He could hardly claim that he had done this out of the goodness of his heart, so he had to fess up that it was a purely cynical maneuver to avoid a politically dicey 9% tax rate.

But how much good will that do him? Won't that 9% rate (or whatever it turns out to be) still get plenty of attention? I'll bet it will.

Poor Mitt. He's between a rock and a hard place. He either reveals that he paid only 9% in taxes, or else he publicly acknowledges that he fiddled with his returns to avoid looking like the tax-avoiding plutocrat he is. What a choice.

Nick Baumann and Adam Serwer have more on Romney's tax returns here.

UPDATE: I'm actually seeing conflicting estimates about what Romney's tax rate would have been if he'd taken his full charitable deduction. Maybe 9%, maybe 11%, maybe 12%. It's a tricky bit of arithmetic because Romney's taxes are so low that the AMT kicks in, and there's no telling exactly how that affects his total tax liability. I'll update this post if I see an authoritative estimate.

Friday Cat Blogging - 21 September 2012

| Fri Sep. 21, 2012 12:07 PM PDT

Domino would like everyone to know that she's even more of a moocher than the 47%. Not only does she pay no federal income tax, but she also pays no sales taxes, no property taxes, no payroll taxes, and no excise taxes. She's part of the 1% that pays no taxes at all, and she thinks all of you who do pay taxes are a bunch of suckers. I tried to explain to her my role in the taxpaying ecosystem, and the tax incidence on cats that this implies, but she just ignored me and crawled into her bag. As long as Uncle Sam doesn't tax afternoon naps, she's happy.