Kevin Drum - October 2012

Supreme Court Might Deliver a Tiny Victory for Common Sense

| Tue Oct. 30, 2012 8:53 AM PDT

The FISA surveillance act had its day in court yesterday, but the subject was solely whether the act would ever have a real day in court. Adam Serwer explains:

Here's what the civil libertarians and human rights activists are upset about: The FISA Amendments Act authorized the warrantless surveillance aimed at targets abroad, including correspondence where one of the points of contact is within the United States. That means the government could spy on American citizens without a warrant or probable cause. Surveillance in cases targeting suspected foreign agents previously had to be approved by a special court. The FISA Amendments Act allowed the government broad latitude to spy without ever needing to ask a judge's permission, even if that means picking up Americans' emails and phone calls.

The arguments before the Supreme Court on Monday weren't about whether this kind of surveillance violates Americans' constitutional rights. Instead, the justices are deciding whether or not the lawyers, journalists, and human rights activists involved in the case can sue at all. To move forward with their case, the plaintiffs need to prove they have what lawyers call "standing"—they have to prove that the law will affect them. That's hard because who the government spies on is by definition a secret.

David Savage tells us how things went:

Supreme Court justices were surprisingly skeptical Monday about arguments by a top Justice Department lawyer who in a hearing sought to squelch an anti-wiretapping lawsuit brought by lawyers, journalists and activists.

....[Elena] Kagan said lawyers who represent foreign clients accused of terrorism-related offenses cannot speak to them on the phone. They said they had to fly overseas to speak to them in person. That suggests these plaintiffs have suffered some harm because of the prospect of their calls being overheard, she said....Kennedy said he too found it hard to believe that the NSA is not engaged in broad monitoring of international calls.

"The government has obtained this extraordinarily wide-reaching power," he said. "It is hard for me to think the government isn't using all of the powers at its command under the law."

This is obviously a tiny victory, but it's a victory nonetheless. The government has been playing this card for over a decade, claiming that literally no one has standing to sue over its secret surveillance programs because no one can prove they've been surveilled. It's an absurd Catch-22, and the court is right to be skeptical of it. One way or another, there should always be somebody who has standing to challenge a law in court. Even if the Supreme Court eventually rules that FISA and its amendments are all constitutional, it would be nice to at least get a ruling that no law is entirely unassailable merely due to technicalities of standing.

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Ohio Press Slams Romney Over Jeep Ad

| Tue Oct. 30, 2012 7:54 AM PDT

Greg Sargent scans the Ohio media for coverage of Mitt Romney's ad claiming that Obama is helping Chrysler ship jobs to China, and finds that it's mostly pretty scorching:

This is hardly a comprehensive look at the local coverage, but it does suggest the possibility that Romney’s Jeep-to-China gamble may be backfiring. Polls have shown that large numbers of Ohioans don’t think Romney cares about their needs and problems. And the Obama campaign views the auto bailout, and Romney’s dishonesty about it, as central to their closing case against Romney’s character, integrity, and true priorities. So these are exactly the headlines the Obama team wants.

I'd like to believe this. But I wonder if it's true. In terms of reach and effectiveness, how does a bunch of indignant newspaper coverage compare to a gut-punch of a TV ad that airs a few thousand times in the course of a week? I'm not sure. I guess we'll find out next Tuesday.

Will Romney Try to Exploit Hurricane Sandy?

| Mon Oct. 29, 2012 10:49 PM PDT

A friend and I were just emailing about Hurricane Sandy:

Friend: This may be the election right here. If Obama can look like he's handling this competently and in control he should be okay. But I'm sure Romney's people are all in a room trying to figure out how to make this Obama's Katrina.

Me: Benghazi didn't work for them, so Sandy is their last hope. But I do think this is a challenge for Romney. Any criticism will look nakedly opportunistic unless there's really a good reason for it. I think the press is probably waiting for Romney to say something obviously excessive.

Friend: I'd watch Drudge for the cues. He should have a picture of a stranded black person up at some point tomorrow.

The wingers will certainly be looking for some kind of Sandy-related incompetence to hang on Obama, but I really do think the press will be on the watch for this and ready to pounce. It's such an obvious thing for a desperate campaign to do, and exploiting a tragedy like this a week before an election would be a little too raw even for our conflict-loving media. Unless Obama really screws up something badly, Romney would probably be best served by quietly telling his surrogates to cool it on Sandy.

David Brooks Says We Must Allow the Hostage to be Killed

| Mon Oct. 29, 2012 9:22 PM PDT

Shorter David Brooks: congressional Republicans are such implacable assholes that they'll flatly refuse to support big legislation that's good for the country as long as Barack Obama is president. But congressional Democrats are more reasonable, so if Mitt Romney wins, he'll be able to get some big stuff passed. Therefore you should vote for Romney.

Shorter shorter David Brooks: the only way to deal with terrorists is to give them what they want.

If you think I must be characterizing Brooks unfairly, I urge you to click on the link above. Then come back and tell me what I got wrong.

Election Update: What Four Different Models Say About November 6th

| Mon Oct. 29, 2012 8:25 PM PDT

It's a week until Election Day, so here's an update on the status of the four most popular presidential forecasting models. On the top are Drew Linzer and Nate Silver; on the bottom are Sam Wang and Pollster. Obama has been widening his lead since about October 10, and is now the favorite in all four models. The average of the models gives Obama 301 electoral votes. Accordingly, you should expect much mud to fly from the Romney campaign over the next seven days.

The Real Real Story Behind Benghazi

| Mon Oct. 29, 2012 7:39 PM PDT

Having pretty much failed to persuade the country that the Obama administration misled the American public about Benghazi while cravenly refusing to call it an act of terrorism, conservatives now have a new conspiracy theory. It revolves around the notion that Obama basically had a real-time video feed of what was happening; knew that embassy staffers were requesting help; knew that a fast-response team could get there in time; but ordered them not to go in, thus making himself personally responsible for the deaths of four American diplomats. Charles Woods, the father of Benghazi victim Tyrone Woods, has been retailing this story all over right-wing talk radio, and conservatives are up in arms that the mainstream media is ignoring it.

But I guess that's old news. The latest latest conspiracy theory is that General Carter Ham, the head of AFRICOM, is being sacked because....well, let's let James Robbins tell the story that he heard from "someone inside the military that I trust entirely":

General Ham immediately had a rapid response unit ready and communicated to the Pentagon that he had a unit ready. General Ham then received the order to stand down. His response was to screw it, he was going to help anyhow. Within 30 seconds to a minute after making the move to respond, his second in command apprehended General Ham and told him that he was now relieved of his command.

The mainstream media is, once again, ignoring this bombshell on the pretext that the Pentagon flatly denies it. The real reason, of course, is that they're in the tank for Obama and won't do anything to hurt him before Election Day.

I have nowhere really to go with this, so I'll turn it into a reader poll. On Twitter earlier, I predicted that no matter who wins, Republicans will completely lose interest in Benghazi on November 7th. What do you think?

A. Yes indeed. Peddling this nonsense will no longer serve any purpose once the election is over.

B. No siree. If Obama wins, Benghazi will mutate from election fodder into impeachment fodder.

Vote in comments!

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One of These Tax Plans Is Not Like the Other

| Mon Oct. 29, 2012 11:55 AM PDT

Jared Bernstein compliments the Washington Post today for its tough line on Mitt Romney's evolving portfolio of magical tax plans. Unfortunately, he says, they can't leave well enough alone:

But the WaPo then goes unfairly to the “pox-on-both-houses” place when it claims that President Obama has not suggested explicit tax expenditures/loophole closures to pay for his corporate tax rate reduction, from 35% to 28%. In this document that introduced the administration’s corporate tax reform ideas, they explicitly call for eliminating an inventory accounting tax gimmick that costs the Treasury $74 billion over ten, oil and gas subsidies ($27 billion), the carried interest loophole, and a bunch of other cats and dogs that amount to over $140 billion.

Beyond that, however, they raise significant revenue (another $148 billion), and just as importantly, close down some distortionary incentives to offshore production, by closing international taxation loopholes. Moreover, their document suggests that some big ticket credits and deductions, including accelerated depreciation and tax preferences for debt over equity financing should be on the table.

How is that anywhere near analogous to the absence of specificity from the Romney campaign on their tax plan? So while I give the WaPo kudos for scrutinizing Romney’s tax math, the double pox formulation doesn’t work here. At the very least, they need to read the administration’s white paper and explain why I’m wrong.

Also worth noting: the Obama document is actually a serious proposal. It's not just four or five bullet points, as most of Romney's plans are. It goes into some serious detail about the pros and cons of various corporate tax reforms and explains what they mean and how much they cost. It's like night and day compared to the pabulum on the Romney campaign website.

More generally, Bernstein is right: this kind of editorializing is lazy, and it infects plenty of other subjects. If the Post doesn't like Obama's corporate tax proposal, that's fine. If they think his numbers don't add up, also fine. But why pretend that he's done nothing but go after trivial small-dollar pay-fors and hasn't produced a serious plan? It's just not true.

Why Medicaid Is Important Even to the Middle Class

| Mon Oct. 29, 2012 10:34 AM PDT

Bob Somerby was happy to see Paul Krugman writing about Medicaid in the New York Times today, but thinks he errs in hauling out a bunch of facts and figures that portray Medicaid primarily as a program for the poor without giving equal time to a few other facts and figues:

As far as we know, none of that is wrong. But what about all the middle-class people who receive (expensive) nursing home care through the Medicaid program, at least in certain states?

To what extent does Medicaid pay for nursing home care for middle-class seniors? To what extent do middle-class voters understand this topic when they heard that Romney wants to slash spending for this program?

We don’t know the full answer to that first question. That said, we’ll guess that the vast majority of middle-class voters don’t understand that Medicaid may pay the bills for the future care of their own parents or grandparents.

Until recently, I would have agreed with Bob. But a couple of months ago the Kaiser Health Tracking Poll asked a question about Medicaid, and it turned out that:

  • 67 percent of respondents supported the Medicaid expansion in Obamacare.
  • Even among middle-class families, 61 percent said that Medicaid was important to them.
  • Of those who said Medicaid was important to them, 49 percent said it was because "you or someone you know" has received long-term nursing care via Medicaid.

As a matter of pure numbers, total Medicaid spending in 2010 was a little under $400 billion, and of that, $123 billion was for long-term nursing care. So that's roughly a third of Medicaid spending.

That's for everyone, of course, not just middle class folks, but it's obviously a big chunk of Medicaid spending no matter how you slice it. And judging from Kaiser's poll responses, most middle-class voters probably do understand that. It's one reason the Obama campaign may have missed a bet by not making a bigger deal out of Mitt Romney's plan to slash Medicaid and then dump the whole program on the states.

Will Prop. 38's Micro Appeal Work?

| Mon Oct. 29, 2012 9:45 AM PDT

Here's an interesting mailer that we got a couple of days ago from the folks supporting Prop. 38, which would raise taxes in California to provide additional funding to schools. It's personalized to me—or to my zip code—and tells me just how much extra money my local schools would get if 38 passes. Clever!

And yet…oddly wrong. Of those three schools, only the middle school is near me. The two elementary schools are a couple of miles away even though I have two elementary schools within half a mile of my house. (Not to mention the nearby high school.) Does that mean that my local elementary schools wouldn't get any Prop. 38 money? Or just that the Yes on 38 campaign uses a really lousy mapping program?

I don't know. But I'm curious: does an appeal to such naked local self-interest work? It might! Something about it feels ineffective, though, as if the gameplaying is a little too obvious. Opinions?

Why We Have So Many Dumb Rules: A Case Study

| Mon Oct. 29, 2012 9:16 AM PDT

New York mayor Michael Bloomberg has gotten a lot of abuse for his campaign to ban the sale of sugary drinks in cups larger than 16 ounces. There are lots of reasons for this, but among the economically literate his proposal is widely viewed as gratuitously inefficient. Simply taxing sugary sodas would be a lot more sensible, so why not do that instead?

Well, here's what's happening in Southern California, where the city of El Monte has placed an initiative on the November ballot to tax sugary drinks. El Monte has a high rate of obesity and big fiscal problems, so it seemed like a winner:

But then the beverage industry converged on El Monte, turning the race into the most expensive campaign in the city's history — and giving it an increasingly David-versus-Goliath feel.

The beverage industry forces are open about their desire to not just kill El Monte's proposal but to make the sugary drinks tax politically unfeasible to other cities. They've brought together consultants from across the country, including the firm of a Washington, D.C., political strategist whose famous "Harry and Louise" advertisements helped derail the Clinton administration's healthcare legislation in the early 1990s.

....Ads targeting Asians, for example, feature a woman named Stephanie Dang explaining how the tax would hit "boba milk tea." Ads targeting Latinos show a Mexican American woman talking about chocolate milk....Driving around El Monte last week, [El Monte mayor Andre] Quintero seemed overwhelmed by the opposition. The "No on H" committee has spent close to $1.3 million, compared to his side's $57,000.

The same thing happened in New York, of course, where the 16-ounce rule came only after attempts to levy a tax failed. And it explains a lot of other suboptimal policies too. Why do we have CAFE fuel economy standards for cars, for example? Part of the reason is that a more sensible policy — a carbon tax or a cap-and-trade plan — is politically impossible thanks to the anti-tax jihadists in Washington. So instead we implement a hodgepodge of command-and-control rules that don't fall foul of Grover Norquist's blood pledge and which the public accepts because it has no idea that these rules end up costing them more than a simple tax would.

In other words, complicated, hidden costs are always better than simple, open costs. That's always been the case to a certain extent, but it's become practically a truism over the past couple of decades. Thanks to conservatives, it's all but impossible to pass a simple, effective policy these days. So instead we get a morass of obscure, convoluted rules that barely get the job done and have a bunch of terrible side effects.

And then conservatives complain about how oppressive all our rules are. Pretty nice work if you can get it.