Kevin Drum - October 2012

Mitt Romney's Math Becomes Even Harder

| Tue Oct. 2, 2012 2:34 PM PDT

A few days ago I suggested that if Mitt Romney wasn't willing to tell us which tax deductions he'd eliminate to make up for his across-the-board tax rate cuts, somebody should at least ask him if there were any deductions that were off the table. Today, Paul Ryan answered exactly that question after a woman at a town hall event told him she was frustrated by his lack of specifics:

RYAN: If you subject more of their income to taxation — more of their income is taxed — and that allows us to lower revenues for everybody across the board. That means middle class taxpayers have lower tax rates, and there’s plenty of fiscal room to keep these important preferences for middle class taxpayers — you know, like charitable donations, or buying a home, or health care. Every time we’ve done this, we’ve created economic growth.”

Hoo boy. Now I really want to see that famous math that Ryan said he didn't have time to go through on Sunday. Greg Sargent comments:

By seeming to take some middle class deductions off the table, Ryan made the math even more hallucinatory. This might be good politics — Ryan is getting more specific in promising not to raise middle class taxes — but it further confirms that Romney and Ryan have completely jettisoned deficit neutrality as a goal of their plan, and that they are selling people a fiscal bill of goods that doesn’t pass the laugh test.

It's worth noting that Ryan didn't categorically promise never to touch the tax deductions he mentioned above. But he sure did come close, and he's plainly opened himself up to legitimate questions about whether these deductions are off the table in a Romney administration. If they are, Romney's plan becomes simply impossible to take seriously. After all, those three deductions, along with the tax preference for capital gains, account for about a third of all tax expenditures — and if those aren't going to be touched you have to somehow pay for the rate cuts out of the remaining two-thirds. At that point Romney's plan becomes not merely garden-variety impossible, but one of the all-time most laughable political panders of all time.

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Beware the Drug Company That "May Be Able to Help"

| Tue Oct. 2, 2012 10:46 AM PDT

Austin Frakt points us to David Schultz today, who explains the financial incentives behind the coupon wars currently raging in the pharmaceutical industry:

Using cholesterol-lowering drugs as an example, researchers found that the popular statin Lipitor comes with an average co-pay of $30 a month, compared with a $10-a-month co-pay for simvastatin, a generic drug also used to treat high cholesterol. But with a coupon from Pfizer, the drug’s manufacturer, the co-pay for Lipitor goes down to $4 a month, making it less expensive for the consumer than simvastatin.

It’s a great deal for the patient, but not the insurer. According to the JAMA article, the insurer pays $18 a month for simvastatin and $137 a month for Lipitor.

In other words, by picking up the tab for the copay, Pfizer encourages patients to demand Lipitor instead of the generic alternative. The result is higher overall costs for the medical industry as a whole and the sweet jingle of increased patent rents for Pfizer. Needless to say, this pitch is especially effective on the poor and the elderly, who live on low incomes and are likely to push their doctors hard to prescribe the drug that saves them a few dollars.

There's more, and the whole piece is worth a read.

-$251 + $165 + 0 = 0

| Tue Oct. 2, 2012 10:09 AM PDT

Catherine Rampell provides the simple, nickel version of why the Romney/Ryan tax plan is mathematically impossible:

As the Tax Policy Center demonstrated, cutting individual income tax rates by 20 percent from today’s levels would reduce tax burdens by $251 billion per year (in 2015) among households with income above $200,000.

If you leave preferential tax rates for savings and investing (e.g., long-term capital gains and dividends) untouched, as Mr. Romney has said he would do, that leaves only $165 billion of available tax expenditures that can be eliminated from this same group of high-income earners once their marginal tax rates fall.

In other words, even if you completely eliminated all tax deductions for high earners — the mortgage interest deduction, the charitable deduction, the exclusion of healthcare benefits, etc. — it still wouldn't make up for the 20% rate cut Romney wants to give them. Their total tax bill would go down. However, Romney has also said that his total tax plan is revenue neutral, which means that someone else's tax bill has to go up to make up for the tax cuts he's giving to the rich. But Romney says that won't happen either. Middle-class taxes, on net, will stay the same. In other words:

-$251 + $165 + 0 = 0

In my 7th-grade pre-algebra class, this bit of arithmetic wouldn't have passed muster. Maybe they taught math differently at Cranbrook. In any case, all I'd really like to see from Romney is a proof of concept. It doesn't have to be his final plan or anything like that. Just any combination of a 20% rate cut and the closing of tax deductions that produces no net tax decrease for the rich. Anything at all that proves it can be done.

But he can't do it, and he knows it. Not without invoking the dynamic scoring fairy, anyway. But at this point, more than a decade after George Bush's tax-cutting extravaganza, if you still believe that tax cuts for the rich will hypercharge the economy and produce huge pots of free revenue, then you deserve whatever you get. For the rest of us, we just want to see the math. It really shouldn't take too long.

Slate Satisfies My Pet Peeve Quota For the Day

| Tue Oct. 2, 2012 9:40 AM PDT

Today, Slate takes on two of my pet peeves. First, Farhad Manjoo on the pagination of online stories:

Pagination is one of the worst design and usability sins on the Web, the kind of obvious no-no that should have gone out with blinky text, dancing cat animations, and autoplaying music. It shows constant, quiet contempt for people who should be any news site’s highest priority—folks who want to read articles all the way to the end.

Pagination persists because splitting a single-page article into two pages can, in theory, yield twice as many opportunities to display ads—though in practice it doesn’t because lots of readers never bother to click past the first page. The practice has become so ubiquitous that it’s numbed many publications and readers into thinking that multipage design is how the Web has always been, and how it should be.

Manjoo talks about some of the problems with pagination, and as you'd expect, they're not exactly world-shaking. So I'll add one to the pot. Someone I know, who will remain nameless, spent years reading LA Times articles on the web and not realizing that the wording at the bottom indicated that there was a second page of text. He did think it was odd that so many stories ended rather abruptly, and also odd that the online edition sometimes didn't always carry the full text that was in the print edition. But until I mentioned it one day, he never made the connection between this and the mysterious "Next" that often showed up at the end of online pieces. This could be solved by either stopping the use of pagination or else using a more descriptive word to tell people that there's more if they click a link. Naturally I'd prefer the former.

Mother Jones paginates its articles too, of course. Everyone does. The panjandrums at MoJo galactic headquarters have, however, been very good about humoring my unwillingness to paginate long posts on my own blog just because I hate it so much. Death to pagination! (By the way: I do my part by always linking to the single-page version of stories whenever I can. You're welcome.)

Pet peeve #2 comes from Daniel Engber, and it's about the endless, smug overuse of "correlation is not causation" as an exasperated conversation ender:

The correlation phrase has become so common and so irritating that a minor backlash has now ensued against the rhetoric if not the concept. No, correlation does not imply causation, but it sure as hell provides a hint. Does email make a man depressed? Does sadness make a man send email? Or is something else again to blame for both? A correlation can't tell one from the other; in that sense it's inadequate. Still, if it can frame the question, then our observation sets us down the path toward thinking through the workings of reality, so we might learn new ways to tweak them. It helps us go from seeing things to changing them.

I get where this comes from. Too many people really do see correlations and just assume that they imply causation of some kind. So it became common to warn people away from this. But honestly, it's gotten so out of hand that I sometimes think we now have the opposite problem: too many people think that correlations are entirely meaningless. But as Engber says, they aren't. At the very least, they provide clues and don't deserve to be immediately dismissed as meaningless.

At the very least, I'd offer the following challenge: You're not allowed to airily dismiss correlations in research studies unless you actually read the study and understand what controls the researchers used to check for causation. Was there a dose-response effect? Did they do a good job of controlling for confounding factors? Did they discuss possible mechanisms for causation? Etc. If it turns out that the researchers didn't even bother addressing the question, then feel free to mock them. If they did, then address their evidence.

And if it's not a research paper, but just a blogger tossing up a pair of lines on a graph? Same deal: at the very least, you should propose some alternative explanation, or provide some reason for doubt. It doesn't need to be bulletproof, but it ought to be something. Let's raise the bar a bit here.

Mitt Romney's Unfortunate Trip Down Memory Lane

| Tue Oct. 2, 2012 8:12 AM PDT

When I watched Mitt Romney's latest attack ad this morning (via Steve Benen), one scene in it struck a chord in my memory. The ad is on the left. The memory it sparked is on the right. Remember that? Call me crazy, but I'm not sure Romney's ad gurus really ought to be reminding people of this.

Pennsylvania Photo ID Law Put on Hold

| Tue Oct. 2, 2012 7:48 AM PDT

This is good news:

A judge on Tuesday blocked Pennsylvania's divisive voter identification requirement from going into effect before Election Day, delivering a hard-fought victory to Democrats who said it was a ploy to defeat President Barack Obama and other opponents who said it would prevent the elderly and minorities from voting.

....Election workers will still be allowed to ask voters for a valid photo ID, but people without it can vote on a regular voting machine in the polling place and would not have to cast a provisional ballot or prove their identity to election officials after the election.

His ruling came after listening to two days of testimony about the state's eleventh-hour efforts to make it easier to get a valid photo ID. He also heard about long lines and ill-informed clerks at driver's license centers and identification requirements that made it hard for some registered voters to get a state-issued photo ID.

Honestly, this is a reasonable decision regardless of what you think about photo ID laws in general. Pennsylvania's law was simply passed too late to be implemented in any kind of fair and equitable way. At a bare minimum, you need time to make sure people know about the law, time to staff up DMV offices to process new ID cards, and time for independent groups to start up community drives to make sure everybody who wants one can get an ID. This is just common sense.

Unless, of course, your goal is just the opposite: to make sure that lots of people who want to vote aren't going to be able to. But that's not anyone's goal, is it?

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Armageddon in Greece

| Mon Oct. 1, 2012 10:29 PM PDT

The New York Times reports on the latest draft budget from Greece:

The draft budget spells out about $10 billion in spending cuts and savings for 2013. About one-quarter of that would come through reductions in civil servants’ salaries and social welfare benefits, and about 15 percent through cuts in spending on health, defense and local authorities, the government said.

....The draft budget is expected to be revised significantly because it must be approved by the country’s troika of foreign lenders — the European Commission, the European Central Bank and the International Monetary Fund — before it can be submitted for a parliamentary vote. The troika is insisting on further cuts in the public sector — including laying off public servants, a political third rail in Greece and other European countries — while the coalition government has been pushing back.

....The negotiations are taking place against a backdrop of unrelenting, depression-level conditions in the Greek economy, which the draft budget predicted would contract by 6.5 percent this year and by 3.8 percent in 2013 — far more than the troika’s earlier estimates and about 25 percent below its peak before the crisis struck. The budget says unemployment is expected to rise to 24.7 percent from 23.5 percent this year.

Just for perspective, this is about a 10% cut in total government spending. The U.S. equivalent would be a cut of about $350 billion in federal spending and another $200-300 billion in state and local spending. All against the backdrop of an economic catastrophe that rivals the Great Depression in scope and will be made even worse by the proposed spending cuts.

If you happen to be wondering why Greeks are rioting in the streets, this is why. You might be too if this were happening to your economy.

So How Did That Whole "Lesser of Two Evils" Thing Work Out For You in 2000?

| Mon Oct. 1, 2012 5:56 PM PDT

I'm a little nonplussed that it's suddenly become a thing to write about whether any self-respecting liberal can vote to reelect Barack Obama, given that he's a warmonger who kills innocent Muslims with his drone attacks. The reason I'm nonplussed is that this meme got kicked off by a piece written last week by Conor Friedersdorf in the Atlantic, and Conor isn't a liberal. Of course he's not thrilled about the prospect of voting for Obama. Not only does he dislike Obama's foreign policy, but he doesn't like Obama's domestic policy either: as far as I know, he's not a fan of Obamacare or the stimulus bill or Dodd-Frank or Obama's dismissal of Simpson-Bowles or any of that. There's nothing much there for him to like aside from the repeal of DADT.

In other words, Conor's piece is about the equivalent of E.J. Dionne telling us why he won't vote for Romney. Of course he won't. Who cares?

That said, if you're an actual lefty agonizing over whether you can possibly support the lesser of two evils this year, I have nine words for you: How did that work out for you in 2000? Even if you assume that Al Gore would have passed the Patriot Act; and invaded Afghanistan; and given the NSA free rein to engage in wholesale amounts of warrantless surveillance; and approved the torture of enemy combatants — even if you assume all that, do you think we would have invaded Iraq if Al Gore had been president? That didn't just happen, after all. It's not as if the public was baying for Saddam Hussein's scalp. It happened only thanks to a very determined effort by Dick Cheney and his fellow neocon sympathizers, and it happened only after a very deliberate, months-long marketing campaign from the Bush White House.

Now sure, you can spin weird counterfactuals here if you want to, but really, there's just no plausible scenario in which this would have happened under President Al Gore. And on the warmonger front, that's a pretty big deal, no? Frankly, if Al Gore had literally implemented the entire Bush agenda except for the Iraq war, that would be reason enough to vote for him.

In other words: yes, there really is a difference. Libya and the drone strikes don't even come close to comparing to Iraq. So go ahead and vote for Gary Johnson if you must, but do it with your eyes open. Whatever good it accomplishes, it also puts us one vote closer to having Dick Cheney's old foreign policy gang back in the West Wing. I'm not quite sure how the math on that one ever gets above zero.

It's Zinger Time!

| Mon Oct. 1, 2012 11:55 AM PDT

With the first presidential debate approaching, we're starting to see lots of retrospective pieces about famous debate gaffes of the past. The Wall Street Journal has a greatest hits parade here, and it's fun because it includes video clips of the various moments. Still, don't take it too seriously. The most famous gaffe of all, Richard Nixon's refusal to wear makeup and his profuse sweating in the television studio, probably didn't actually make any difference. The myth that Nixon lost the debate among TV viewers but won among radio listeners was seriously called into question long ago. And as Bob Somerby reminds us, Al Gore's famous sighing in 2000 didn't prevent him from posting a convincing win over George Bush in the overnight polls. It was only after the media got hold of the sighing meme that it took off.

As for the others, who knows? Reagan was already well ahead of Jimmy Carter when he invented the debate zinger in 1980, and it's pretty unlikely that George Bush looking at his watch in 1992 really made much of a difference. As for the Ford and Dukakis gaffes — well, I don't know. But I guess I'd like to see some evidence that there was a sharp tick in the polls shortly afterward.

In any case, if there's anything that partisans of all stripes should hold against Ronald Reagan, it's the idiotic obsession we now have with debate zingers. Romney's team has apparently been hard at work on the zinger front, and the New York Times reports that they've "equipped him with a series of zingers that he has memorized and has been practicing on aides since August." Great. I don't doubt that Team Obama is doing the same, but the big difference here is that the Romney guys actually bragged about it. This is so mind-numbingly stupid that Romney probably ought to be tossed out of the race just for sheer campaign incompetence.

It's October, So It Must Be Time For a Surprise

| Mon Oct. 1, 2012 10:03 AM PDT

Anton Brand/Shutterstock; Harry E. Walker/MCT/ZUMAAnton Brand/Shutterstock; Harry E. Walker/MCT/ZUMAAccording to Craig Unger at Salon, a "highly reliable source" tells him that the Romney campaign is "chortling with glee" over an October Surprise they plan to unleash in the coming days.

Republican operatives are primed to unleash a new two-pronged offensive that will attack Obama as weak on national security, and will be based, in part, on new intelligence information regarding the attacks in Libya that killed U.S. Ambassador Chris Stevens on Sept. 11....[The source] added that they planned to release what they hoped would be “a bombshell” that would make Libya and Obama’s foreign policy a major issue in the campaign. “My understanding is that they have come up with evidence that the Obama administration had positive intelligence that there was going to be a terrorist attack on the intelligence.”

Really? Well fine. I wasn't going to do this, since the prospect of an October Surprise hasn't really been a topic of conversation this year, but back in 2004 it was, and I wrote a short little history of October Surprises for the Washington Monthly. It never got published, but by God, no research should ever go to waste, should it? So in honor of October 1st, here it is. If you have the stamina to make it all the way to the end, there's even a short little contest. Enjoy.


In July 1940, at the height of his powers and running for an unprecedented third term, Franklin Roosevelt surveyed the Democratic party in search of a running mate. After due consideration his eyes lighted on his Secretary of Agriculture, Henry Wallace, a selection his closest advisors and most of the Democratic party chiefs warned him away from. FDR refused to listen: "They will go for Wallace or I won't run," he insisted testily.

And why not? Wallace was popular, a good speaker, and had done a creditable job of running the Department of Agriculture. What's more, he was honest to a fault, a fervent New Dealer, and intensely loyal to Roosevelt. Oh, and one more thing: in this era before FBI background checks, it turned out that Wallace had an additional trait that FDR either didn't know about or didn't take seriously: he was a wee bit eccentric.

Unfortunately for Roosevelt, his Republican opposition did know.