Kevin Drum - October 2012

This Weekend May Seriously Test Your Loyalties

| Thu Oct. 25, 2012 9:58 PM EDT

This is a drag. Tyler Cowen draws my attention to a study that suggests a home team win by a local college football team shortly before an election boosts the vote for an incumbent president. The biggest effect, oddly enough, is for the game ten days before the election, not the game right before the election. A win this weekend could boost the local vote for the incumbent by a stunning 2.59 percentage points.

Right away, I'm going to say I don't believe this. It's just too big an effect. But you can't be too careful, can you? And that sets up some conflicts. My USC Trojans, for example, are playing Arizona this weekend, and a USC win would have no effect. Who cares if Obama gooses his winning percentage in California by a point or two? A win by the Wildcats, however, might just put Arizona over the top for Obama.

Or how about Penn State vs. Ohio State? I have some residual loyalty to Penn State because my father taught there for a year and my sister was born there. What's more, as a Pac-12 guy, hating Ohio State is bred into my genes. But Pennsylvania isn't in play. Ohio is, and if an Ohio State win gives Obama an extra point or two in the Buckeye State, that could determine who wins the election.

Luckily, Ohio State is a big favorite, so it probably doesn't matter. Nonetheless, for the first time in my life, I might just be rooting for them.

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Chart of the Day: The Federal Reserve Loves Republicans

| Thu Oct. 25, 2012 5:43 PM EDT

Republicans may have taken to hating the Fed in recent years, but University of Michigan political scientist William Clark tells us today that the Fed sure loves Republicans. In every single presidential term over the last five decades, interest rates have risen between the beginning and end of Democratic administrations and dropped during Republican administrations:

This is actually even more sinister than it looks. Clark says that, even after controlling for macroeconomic conditions, it appears that "as elections draw near, the Fed adopts a looser monetary policy when Republicans control the White House." In this, he's echoing Jamie Galbraith, who wrote a paper in 2007 showing exactly the same thing. In fact, he demonstrated that the Fed systematically intervenes during election years, but in opposite directions depending on which party holds the White House. Controlling for economic conditions, the Fed loosens more than expected when Republicans are seeking reelection and tightens more than expected when a Democrat is seeking reelection.

Of course, this might all just be a big coincidence. I report, you decide.

POSTSCRIPT: Fairness dictates that I acknowledge Ben Bernanke as the exception to this rule. He couldn't actually lower interest rates for Barack Obama, since rates were already near zero when he took office, but Bernanke has certainly engaged in several rounds of nontraditional monetary easing during Obama's term.

Of course, fairness also requires me to acknowledge that Republicans have screamed blue murder about this every step of the way, because they're bound and determined to oppose anything that might help the economy during a Democratic administration.

Okay, Twitter Isn't Ruining Political Journalism. But It Sure Is Hurting Debate Coverage.

| Thu Oct. 25, 2012 4:46 PM EDT

Via Twitter, I've gotten a fair amount of pushback on my post this morning titled "How Twitter Is Ruining Political Journalism." I blame my editors. They spent years trying to get me to write less boring headlines, and their nagging finally worked! But sometimes it leads me astray. Just for the record, then:

  • The headline was hyperbolic. Obviously Twitter has had both positive and negative effects on political journalism.
  • One of those positive effects is that readers get lots of instant reporting from journalists.
  • One of the negative effects is that journalists now feel like they have to spew out mountains of instant reporting to stay in business.
  • Another positive effect is that chattering between reporters is now more public than before. If you're going to chatter, the rest of us might as well get to hear it.
  • But a negative effect is that reporters now chatter more than ever. In the past, there really were some limitations on this dictated by physical circumstances.

Debate coverage is an extreme case. Reporters should actively want to develop their own opinions about the candidates' performances. They should actively want to avoid letting the rest of the herd influence them. That's just common sense. After they've done that and put their thoughts down on paper, they'll want to get reactions from various folks who have campaign roles, but even then there's no real reason they should be interested in reactions from other reporters. There's no reason to be afraid of having a different take than everyone else.

If you're covering a riot or a burning building, that's different. Twitter can be an important part of keeping abreast of what's going on. But political debates are different. Twitter may be fun, but doing your job comes first. Turn it off until the debate is over.

When Do We Get to the Revenue Half of Bowles-Simpson?

| Thu Oct. 25, 2012 1:28 PM EDT

Jared Bernstein makes a point today that's worth repeating: Republicans have given a lot of love to the Bowles-Simpson deficit reduction plan lately, but it turns out that we've already made a lot of the spending cuts in their plan. Here are the basic numbers:

  • Total discretionary spending cuts proposed: $2.1 trillion
  • Revenue increases proposed: $2.6 trillion
  • Discretionary spending cuts already passed in 2011: $1.5 trillion
  • What's left: $0.6 trillion in discretionary spending cuts and $2.6 trillion in tax increases

This doesn't count savings from interest on the debt, it doesn't count reduced war expenses, it doesn't count sequestration cuts scheduled for January 1, it doesn't include entitlement cuts, and it's not inflated by stimulus spending. These are apples-to-apples numbers on discretionary spending and revenue increases.

So we've already made pretty good progress on Bowles-Simpson's discretionary spending cuts. Add in interest reductions and war cuts and we've made even more. But we've made no progress at all on the Bowles-Simpson revenue increases. When does that part of the plan get started?

Know Your Communist History

| Thu Oct. 25, 2012 12:50 PM EDT

President Obama's new booklet, "A Plan for Jobs," is subtitled "The New Economic Patriotism," and the editors of National Review are not amused. I'll admit that I could do without that subtitle myself, but it turns out that NR objects to it mainly because of its initials: "If that name seems to you redolent of early-20th-century totalitarians, that may be because it is not the first N.E.P.: Lenin’s was the Novaya Ekonomicheskaya Politika." You'd think that National Review, of all places, would know its communist history, but no. Matt Steinglass provides the free lesson:

Interesting reference! The Novaya Ekonomich-eskaya Politika was a free-market economic reform package introduced by the Soviet government in 1921. It entailed a retreat from an all-state economic model in favour of institutionalised recognition of a legitimate private sector in industry and agriculture, as well as a dramatic tax cut.

....The reforms were largely successful, leading the Russian economy back to pre-war production levels by 1927. But they also led to rising income inequality. After Stalin won the struggle for power in 1928 over alternative leaders like Trotsky, Zinoviev and Kamenev, he soon abandoned the NEP in favour of forced agricultural collectivisation and industrial centralisation under the first five-year plan. He then gradually mopped up every remaining base of political opposition within the party and had them all executed in show trials beginning in 1934.

I'll grant you that an association with Lenin does no politician any good, regardless of which particular policy we're talking about. Still, if you're going to be childish enough to object to something because of its initials, you probably ought to at least know what you're talking about first.

How Twitter Is Ruining Political Journalism

| Thu Oct. 25, 2012 11:54 AM EDT

Dana Milbank writes about the way that political journalism works today:

Walk into the “filing center” at a presidential debate and you’ll see hundreds of reporters seated at tables doing two things: Watching the action on TV (reporters covering the debates aren’t actually in the same room as the candidates) and monitoring Twitter on their laptops.

....From the first minutes, journalists at the site and back at home monitor each other’s tweets, testing out themes and gauging which candidate is ahead, point by point: “First section kind of a wash” . . . “Romney very soft on Libya” . . . “Obama is condescending here” . . . “Zing!” . . . “No laughs in the press file for that canned Obama line.” Somewhere around the 30-minute mark, the conventional wisdom gels — and subsequent tweets, except those from the most hardened partisans, increasingly reflect the Twitter-forged consensus. Well before the end, the journalists agree on a winner, a loser and which moments — Big Bird, binders full of women, horses and bayonets — should trend their way into the news coverage.

....I don’t fault the journalists who engage in instant analysis....

Let's stop right there. I fault the journalists who do this. Don't get me wrong: I understand that professional reporters don't live in a bubble. They attend the same events, they talk to each other on the campaign trail, and they read each others' stories. This is inevitable, and it's inevitably going to lead to a certain amount of bandwagoning.

But even if this is inevitable, it's something that good reporters should at least fight. The last thing they should do is actively make it worse by obsessing over their Twitter feeds. So yes: let's fault the journalists who do this. It's insane. They should be doing everything they can to resist groupthink, not gleefully diving ever deeper into the looking glass. This is really a staggering dereliction of duty.

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America's CEOs Want the Rest of Us to Pay For Their Folly

| Thu Oct. 25, 2012 9:57 AM EDT

Felix Salmon has a righteous rant about a group of CEOs who have written a manifesto insisting that "growing debt" is a serious threat to the well-being of the United States. But as Felix points out, "debt" has actually decreased in the past few years:

So when the CEOs talk about “our growing debt”, what they mean is just the debt owed by the Federal government. And when the Federal government borrows money, that doesn’t even come close to making up for the fact that the CEOs themselves are not borrowing money.

Money is cheaper now than it has been in living memory: the markets are telling corporate America that they are more than willing to fund investments at unbelievably low rates. And yet the CEOs are saying no. That’s a serious threat to the economic well-being of the United States: its companies are refusing to invest for the future, even when the markets are begging them to.

Instead, the CEOs come out and start criticizing the Federal government for stepping in and filling the gap. If it wasn’t for the Federal deficit, the debt-to-GDP chart would be declining even more precipitously, and the economy would be a disaster. Deleveraging is a painful process, and the Federal government is — rightly — easing that pain right now. And this is the gratitude it gets in return!

Later, after reviewing the blather that passes for a proposal, Felix translates:

In other words, the letter basically just says “please cut our taxes, raise taxes on everybody else, and cut the benefits they get from Medicare, Medicaid, and Social Security, which are programs we individually don’t rely upon”. It’s gross self-interest masquerading as public statesmanship.

To summarize: the economy is in bad shape, corporations are refusing to expand, the federal government is taking up some of the slack to keep the economy afloat, and 80 of our nation's CEOs are outraged and insist that the solution is to eviscerate the middle class. Very nice. If it weren't forbidden, I'd call this class wa — um, well, you know. Rich guys vs. the rest of us.

Kevin Drum's Guide to California's Ballot Mayhem

| Thu Oct. 25, 2012 6:33 AM EDT

This is a special post for California readers. The rest of you may safely ignore it.

This year we have 11 initiatives on the California ballot. As longtime readers know, my default position is to oppose all initiatives. Here's the nickel version of a longer rant about this: (1) Most initiatives these days are funded by corporate interests, not the grassroots, and corporate interests don't really need yet another avenue to work their will on the public; (2) generally speaking, laws should be laws, not constitutional amendments or initiative statutes, where they're essentially etched in stone forever; and (3) ballot box budgeting is a curse. So keep my biases in mind as you read this.

It's worth noting that my dislike of initiatives softens a bit when there's no choice in the matter. We Californians have passed a ton of initiatives in the past, and since that etches them in stone (see No. 2, supra) it means that the only way to change them is via another initiative. I don't like it, but that's life. I'm mentioning this because several of this year's initiatives fall into this category, and they account for every single one of my Yes recommendations.

  1. Temporary tax hike to benefit schools: YES. California schools are badly underfunded, and thanks to Proposition 13's requirement that all tax bills require a two-thirds vote in the Legislature, it's all but impossible to raise taxes to fix the situation. If tax laws could be passed by a simple majority vote, and Sacramento failed to do so, I'd take that as the will of the people and let it go. But that's not how things are, which means a ballot initiative is the only answer. This one isn't perfect, but it's not bad. It deserves a Yes vote.

    There's a competing tax measure, Proposition 38, also on the ballot. More on that below.

  2. Miscellaneous budget and local government reform: NO. Proposition 31 has some good points. Providing a small financial incentive for local governments to coordinate public services might be a good idea. It's also got some iffy points. Allowing the governor more authority to cut spending in an emergency is a so-so idea. And it's got some bad points. Micromanaging the budget process is a bad idea, and so is Prop. 31's too-vague plan to allow local governments to override state regulations. All in all, Prop. 31 is a hodgepodge that just doesn't pass a high enough bar to deserve support.

  3. Paycheck protection: NO. This zombie initiative—the third of its kind in the past 14 years—would forbid unions from deducting money from workers' paychecks for political purposes. It's ostensibly nonpartisan because it also bans corporations from doing this, but that's like passing a law making it illegal for both workers and managers to go on strike. Corporations don't do this in the first place, so in practice this initiative crushes the political power of unions but does nothing to rein in the political power of corporations. It's a scam.

  4. Auto insurance: NO. This is another zombie initiative, backed by the zillionaire CEO of Mercury Insurance, who tried to get a nearly identical initiative passed in 2010. Here's the short argument against it: Prop. 103, passed in 1988, allows insurers to consider only factors related to the likelihood of filing a claim when they set rates. Prop. 33 would add another factor by allowing insurance companies to provide discounts to drivers who have been continuously insured—a factor that, it turns out, has little relationship to the risk of loss. Prop. 33 might very well benefit Mercury Insurance, which could more easily poach business from other insurers if it passes, but unless you're a Mercury stockholder that's not a very good reason to support it. We're better off keeping Prop. 103 the way it is.

  5. Replace the death penalty with life in prison without possibility of parole: YES. The death penalty has never been one of my big hot buttons. Still, there's mountains of evidence that it's applied unfairly and sometimes imposed on innocent defendants, which is reason enough to get rid of it. But it's also worth getting rid of the death penalty because it simply doesn't work in California. Hundreds of people sit on death row for decades at a time, and millions of dollars are spent defending them, all with little hope of the death penalty actually being imposed. Only 13 people have been executed in California since 1977, and a federal judge imposed a moratorium in 2006. It's time to end the death penalty farce, and since it was originally imposed via initiative, the only way to do this is via another initiative.

  6. Human Trafficking: NO. California may or may not need better human trafficking laws, but it doesn't need this sloppily written initiative that's yet another pet project of a local zillionaire. These kinds of laws should be written by legislatures, not carved into stone forever by ballot initiatives.

  7. Three strikes: YES. Prop. 36 modifies our three-strikes law so that 25-to-life sentences are imposed only if the third strike is a serious one. This is just common sense. However, since the original three-strikes law was passed by initiative, the only way to make this change is via another initiative. It's worth a Yes vote.

  8. GM food labeling: NO. I'll confess to mixed feelings about this. But I'm afraid mixed feelings mean a No vote. I respect the desire to know where your food comes from, regardless of whether you want to know different things than I do, but on a substantive level I'm not convinced that GM foods pose enough of a genuine hazard to rate detailed labeling laws that are etched in stone forever. Also: This initiative, as with so many initiatives, is sloppily written; it can't be changed after it's passed; and it imposes expensive state labeling burdens on interstate commerce, something that I'm increasingly leery of. I'll also note that I'm swayed by our experience with Prop. 65, which imposed labeling requirements for toxic chemicals. In the end, so many warning signs got posted that they became essentially useless. I have a feeling Prop. 37 might have the same result.

    For a different view, check out Tom Philpott's take on Prop. 37 and its detractors here.

  9. Temporary tax hike to benefit schools: NO (with an asterisk). Prop. 38 competes with Prop. 30 as a tax measure to benefit public schools. Here's the calm, collected argument in favor of Prop. 30: (1) it takes effect immediately, and (2) it allows the legislature more flexibility in using its funds than Prop. 38, which strictly earmarks its revenue. Since I'm a sworn foe of ballot box budgeting, I prefer the Prop. 30 approach. A bit of flexibility is a feature, not a bug.

    And now for the decidedly non-calm argument. California needs a temporary tax hike. So last year Gov. Jerry Brown did what we elected him to do: he engaged in a bit of horsetrading and hammered out a tax proposal. Liberals rebelled, compromises were made, and Brown's measure eventually got wide support from most of the state's major political players. This means that it's not perfect. Real world compromises never are. But it's still pretty good.

    So what happened? We got a competing measure funded by yet another local zillionaire, heiress Molly Munger (she's the daughter of Warren Buffett's business partner). And in some ways Prop. 38 really is better than Prop 30. But so what? Prop. 30 is pretty good, it's widely supported, and the main effect of Prop. 38 is to confuse everyone and increase the risk of neither initiative passing. That's especially true since Munger has turned this into a death march, spending her fortune not only to promote Prop. 38, but to run negative ads against Prop 30. And needless to say, this is all in addition to the usual barrels of money being poured into the Prop. 30 opposition by California's anti-tax jihadists. Thanks, Molly!

    Self-absorbed purity contests like this really piss me off, and I would sure appreciate it if California's zillionaires could find something else to do with their riches. That said, here's the asterisk: if you do vote Yes on 38, at least vote Yes on 30 too. That way we still have a good chance to get something passed even if Prop 38 fails. Don't insist on drowning the passengers just because your particular lifeboat doesn't get chosen to rescue a sinking ship.

  10. Tax treatment for multistate businesses: YES. Back during some last-minute bargaining over a tax bill during Arnold Schwarzenegger's term, legislators decided they didn't quite have the courage to change California's corporate tax code from a three-factor system (based on sales, employment and property) to a simpler system based solely on in-state sales. So they kept both systems and allowed corporations to choose whichever one gave them a lower tax bill. This was dumb, and it costs California about $1 billion per year. Unfortunately, thanks to Proposition 13's requirement that all tax bills require a two-thirds vote, it's impossible to fix this kludge because the anti-tax jihadists consider it a tax increase. So a ballot initiative is our only option. Prop. 39 is a sensible proposal that produces better tax incentives for corporations, stops them from gaming the system, and raises a bit of money all at once. Unfortunately, it also earmarks some of that money for special purposes. But it's a temporary earmark, so it's still worth a Yes.

  11. Redistricting: YES. This is a weird one. Originally it was a Republican referendum on the state Senate redistricting plan approved by the California Citizens Redistricting Commission, but in a ruling earlier this year the California Supreme Court indicated that even if the plan were nullified it would probably draw pretty similar lines itself. So backers, who wanted a No vote (which would overturn the CCRC plan) gave up. However, there was no way to remove Prop. 40 from the ballot, so it's still here. A Yes vote upholds the redistricting plan, and no one is opposing that.

The Disposition Matrix

| Thu Oct. 25, 2012 12:54 AM EDT

I don't have time to write a long post about this right this second, but you should read Greg Miller's piece in the Washington Post today about the "disposition matrix," the latest and greatest upgrade of President Obama's kill list:

The matrix contains the names of terrorism suspects arrayed against an accounting of the resources being marshaled to track them down, including sealed indictments and clandestine operations. U.S. officials said the database is designed to go beyond existing kill lists, mapping plans for the “disposition” of suspects beyond the reach of American drones.

Although the matrix is a work in progress, the effort to create it reflects a reality setting in among the nation’s counterterrorism ranks: The United States’ conventional wars are winding down, but the government expects to continue adding names to kill or capture lists for years....That timeline suggests that the United States has reached only the midpoint of what was once known as the global war on terrorism. Targeting lists that were regarded as finite emergency measures after the attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, are now fixtures of the national security apparatus. The rosters expand and contract with the pace of drone strikes but never go to zero.

Doug Mataconis has a good summary of reaction to Miller's piece here. It's worth a read.

Obama: GOP Will Eventually See the Light on Immigration Reform

| Wed Oct. 24, 2012 8:47 PM EDT

On Monday, the Obama campaign agreed to an interview request from the Des Moines Register on the condition that it be off the record. How do we know this? Because shortly after the interview concluded the Register's editor wrote a long blog post complaining about it. He's getting a lot of praise for this, but at the risk of being a little #slatepitch-y, I wonder if he deserves this praise? If he had refused Obama's conditions, he'd then have every right to complain publicly. But once he agrees, doesn't "off the record" sort of imply that you not immediately start bitching about it as soon as the interview is over? I'd certainly be reluctant to talk to someone off the record if I thought it would just make me a target of abuse as soon as the conversation was over.

But I haven't really thought this through. Maybe some big-time journalism ethicist ought to weigh in on this. In any case, shortly after the Register's gripe-fest was posted, the Obama campaign agreed to lift its restriction and allow the Register to post a transcript of the interview. One question they asked was about how Obama could get anything done given the "partisan gridlock that has gripped Washington and Congress," and that's a pretty good question. Obama's answer was basically about the fiscal cliff focusing everyone's attention, but then he moved onto another subject:

The second thing I’m confident we’ll get done next year is immigration reform. And since this is off the record, I will just be very blunt. Should I win a second term, a big reason I will win a second term is because the Republican nominee and the Republican Party have so alienated the fastest-growing demographic group in the country, the Latino community. And this is a relatively new phenomenon. George Bush and Karl Rove were smart enough to understand the changing nature of America. And so I am fairly confident that they’re going to have a deep interest in getting that done. And I want to get it done because it’s the right thing to do and I've cared about this ever since I ran back in 2008.

So....what does the hive mind think about this? It all makes perfect sense to me, but that, if anything, is a pretty good reason it won't happen. This is the tea-party-ized GOP we're talking about, after all, and good sense is not exactly its hallmark.

On the other hand, if Romney loses and the tea party appears to be responsible for yet another Senate debacle, who knows? Maybe their grip on the party really will be loosened. The folks who actually run the Republican Party will put up with losing only just so much, and Obama is certainly right that they have every incentive to stop pissing off the Latino community. I just wonder who will win in a showdown between the true believers and the real bosses.