Kevin Drum - October 2012

Less Theater Criticism, More Content Criticism, Please

| Tue Oct. 9, 2012 6:13 PM EDT

As long as I'm getting beat up on the subject of Wednesday's debate and the liberal dearth of mindless hackery, I should note that I've gotten a number of emails asking me if I'm arguing that liberal pundits should be more hackish. That's a fair question, and the short answer is no. Sure, it might hurt us now and again, and sure, hacks have a place in the political ecosystem just like everyone else, but I'm pretty happy that lefties tend to be somewhat more wonkish and policy-oriented than righties.

So if I'm not endorsing greater liberal hackitude, what do I think liberal commenters should have done on Wednesday night? I'll tell you, but first let me lay some groundwork. Have you ever heard the old saw that the best way to judge a presidential debate is to watch it with the sound off? Well, I think that's just about the stupidest piece of folk wisdom I've ever heard. It's not just that this reduces debates to theater criticism. It's worse than that. It's not even good theater criticism. After all, would you watch a play or a movie with the sound removed and then write a review for your local newspaper? Of course not. You can't possibly judge a play without hearing the actual dialog.

The same is true for presidential debates. Sure, demeanor matters. If Obama hesitated too much, seemed unsure of what he wanted to say, and inserted too many ums and ers into his sentences, then by all means ding him for it. But what I'd really like liberals to focus on is the actual content of the answers Romney and Obama delivered. And on that score it's hard for me to believe that Obama deserved the shellacking he got. Maybe you think he should have attacked Romney harder. Maybe you think he should have called out Romney's evasions more crisply. But those are fairly modest criticisms. On a substantive basis, Romney consistently evaded, distorted, and in some cases outright lied. And Obama called him on it. It's right there in the transcript in case too much steam was blowing out of your ears in real time to hear it. That's what I wish liberal talking heads had focused on: the actual content of the debate. On that score, yes, Obama could have done better. But it wasn't an epic disaster.

Content, content, content. That's what I want my fellow lefties to obsess about.

Advertise on MotherJones.com

The Hack Gap Revisited: How Powerful Is the Modern Media?

| Tue Oct. 9, 2012 2:28 PM EDT

Last night I argued that although President Obama turned in a weak debate performance on Wednesday, his bigger problem was the wild overreaction of liberal talking heads immediately after the debate. Joan Walsh of Salon takes issue with this today, and she lands some good punches. But I particularly want to respond to one of the things she says:

Can Drum truly believe that mainstream media reporters take their cues from liberals on TV? Some 58 million people watched the debate; maybe a few million watched MSNBC afterward. Could Chris Matthews and Ed Schultz really define Obama's debate performance as poor in the absence of evidence that it was, well, poor?

Let's take these one at a time. First, do mainstream reporters take their cues from liberals on TV?

Normally, no. But this isn't a normal news story. It's an explicitly partisan event, one where news reporters would normally be required to cover it straight: Obama said X, Romney said Y, blah blah blah. If both sides insist that their guy did well, that's about all the mainstream folks can say. But when Chris Matthews and Ed Schultz and Joan Walsh all deliver stinging denunciations of Obama's performance, this gives them permission to report as fact that Romney won. See, even liberals agree! And sure enough, that's how things eventually congealed. This is a fundamental point about how the modern media works, one that we fail to understand at our peril.

Second, can TV talking heads really define Obama's performance? I think so. I admit that the evidence here is thin, but the polling I saw suggests that viewers polled during the debate thought it was about even; viewers polled right after the debate though Romney had won; and viewers polled a little later still thought it was a rout. I can't think of any good explanation for this aside from the effect of the talking heads right after the debate and the firestorm of liberal criticism that quickly turned into a feeding frenzy of outrage. And generally speaking, I'd say there's plenty of historical evidence that media coverage of presidential debates has much more impact than the debates themselves. (However, I'd be very interested if someone could point me to a solid analysis of poll data on this question. I'm basing this on what I saw and read at the time, but my memory might be faulty.)

For the record, I should note that I'm making an observation here, not an endorsement. Walsh says, "Certainly if Drum thinks it’s my job to be Sean Hannity in lipstick, repeating David Axelrod’s talking points every night, that’s not a job I’m interested in." Me neither! Nonetheless, there's a clear price to be paid for this, and I think we saw an unusually dramatic demonstration of it last Wednesday.

How Congress Turns Deficit Reduction Into a Videogame

| Tue Oct. 9, 2012 1:06 PM EDT

Matt Yglesias says today that fixing a short-term deficit problem is something Congress can do. They can raise taxes or cut spending, as they did in 1990 and 1993, and deficits will go away. But it's a different story for long-term deficits. "No matter how much we scrunch our eyes together and promise really really hard, we can't force the political system of 2040 to avoid overspending on health care servies for my eighty-something dad rather than on private sector capital investments that will increase the productivity and wages of a hypothetical thirty-something kid. It simply can't be done."

More on this in a bit, but Matt goes on to make the perceptive point that since legislating long-term deficit reduction is all but impossible, self-proclaimed deficit hawks instead simply play a different, and completely useless, game:

What we can tackle is the shallow problem of CBO scores. Right now, the way the CBO scores things shows gigantic future deficits. If you pass a law saying "if the cyclically-adjusted budget deficit goes above 3.5% of GDP, Medicare reimbursement rates will automatically fall to eliminate the deficit" then you solve the CBO score problem.

It goes away like magic. But that's a dumb plan. Or, rather, it's not a plan at all. It's just a scoring rule. But if you peer into the details of different deficit reduction plans this is how they all work....The CBO doesn't employ fortune tellers who can assess conjectures about the future application of information technology to health care, about the military situation in the Pacific Rim, or about the political economy of tweaks in program design. So all the long-term plans end up relying on scoring rules. You direct the CBO to assess a situation in which congress "isn't allowed" to spend more than X on domestic programs or Y on the military or automatically applies cuts to hospitals. But giving the CBO those instructions doesn't change anything in the world, it's just an accounting exercise.

This is an extremely worthwhile point to internalize. A vast amount of what passes for long-term deficit reduction on Capitol Hill is just handwaving. This is especially true of Paul Ryan's endless parade of deficit reduction plans, all of which rely on telling CBO to assume various spending caps but provide no details on how those caps might be met or how they can possibly be enforced. When you do the arithmetic on these plans you always end up with wildly absurd projections, but that doesn't matter. CBO has to assume they're true, and the result is a series of nice charts showing the deficit slowly going away.

That said, I want to dissent slightly from Matt's point. There are, roughly speaking, four broad areas where Congress can act:

  • Taxes. Tax cuts and increases can't be forced on future generations and can't be prohibited either. As Republicans demonstrated in 2001, tax changes can be successfully passed via reconciliation, which means a simple majority in Congress can change tax law anytime it wants.
  • Discretionary spending. Ditto.
  • Social Security. This is a different case. Past experience suggests that when Congress passes rules that affect either future benefits or the future trajectory of payroll taxes, they stay intact. Practically speaking, Congress really can bind future generations here.
  • Medicare. This is a mixed bag. Some reforms don't stick (like the doc fix, which is deferred every year), while others do. Congress does have a limited ability to bind future generations to Medicare reforms that it passes today. However, the key problem here isn't really Medicare per se anyway. It's healthcare, full stop. Until we get a handle on that, there's no real chance of reining in Medicare growth.

Medium-term tax and spending changes aren't binding, but they do set the stage for future Congresses. Put that alongside long-term changes to Social Security and Medicare, and in practical terms you really do have a limited amount of power to bind future Congresses. It's not perfect by any stretch, but it's not entirely useless either.

Chart of the Day: We Are Becoming a Nation of Heathens

| Tue Oct. 9, 2012 12:30 PM EDT

There's nothing new here, but the chart below happened to show up in a new Pew report on the rise of Americans with no religious affiliation, so I thought I'd pass it along. As you can see, religious affiliation held fairly steady until 1991, but in the twenty years since then the number of people reporting no religion has more than doubled. This has come almost entirely out of the ranks of Protestants.

We all have our own guesses about why this might be, and obviously this has been a common phenomenon throughout the advanced economies of the world. In the American context, I blame the rise of Jerry Falwell and the politicization of religion for the drop in the number of people who want to call themselves Protestants. It's just become a toxic label for a lot of people who aren't rabid social conservatives, especially among the young. The Pew report has more on this, and Ed Kilgore has some comments too.

The Conspiracy of Silence About Mitt Romney's Medicare Plan

| Tue Oct. 9, 2012 11:09 AM EDT

Once again, I am gobsmacked. David Brooks writes an entire column today about the Romney/Ryan plan to voucherize Medicare, and the whole thing goes like this:

The second approach is to replace the fee-for-service system with more normal market incentives. Give recipients a choice among insurance options and have providers compete to offer comprehensive coverage like today’s Medicare....Paul Ryan wrote his own version a few years ago and has come up with a more moderate version with Senator Ron Wyden, a Democrat.

....There are serious health economists who scoff at market-based strategies. Others just don’t know....The Romney-Ryan approach might work. If it doesn’t, the federal budget would suffer but seniors wouldn’t. Today’s seniors would be left untouched anyway, and tomorrow’s would have the option of private plans or traditional Medicare. At worst, if the market approach flopped, we’d be back to where we started.

As usual, there isn't a single word in this column about the most important feature of the Romney/Ryan plan: it arbitrarily limits premium growth to GDP + 0.5% per year.

Now, there are good arguments for imposing a cap like this. But one thing you can't say is that it's a market-based approach. If you had to pick just one single thing that distinguishes a market-based economy from any other kind of economy, it's the principle of using competition to generate a price signal. If you don't generate a price signal, it might look superficially like a market, but it's not.

In the Romney/Ryan plan, the government sets the price it will pay for Medicare coverage and then asks private providers for bids. It's true, as Brooks says, that competition among providers might help reduce prices a bit, but by far the heaviest lifting is done by the government-mandated price cap. That's central control every bit as much as any panel of bureaucrats that Barack Obama has ever proposed.

I just don't get it: how can conservatives repeatedly write about the Romney/Ryan Medicare plan without ever mentioning the price cap? It's as if they don't even realize it exists, and don't realize that both Romney and Ryan have been studiously unwilling to say what happens if insurers can't meet the cap — which they probably can't. Does the cap go up? Do seniors pay the difference? No one knows. If the latter, then it's decidedly untrue that "seniors would be left untouched" if it fails. 

But one thing we do know: the cap exists, and it's by far the most important part of the plan. There sure seems to be a mighty widespread conspiracy to keep it a little-known secret, though.

UPDATE: Andrew Sprung emails to tell me that although Paul Ryan's Medicare plan includes the GDP + 0.5% spending cap, Mitt Romney's plan doesn't. The Boston Globe quotes one of Romney's advisors saying: "Governor Romney has never proposed a cap on premium support growth that would leave seniors without the assistance they need to afford a plan with coverage at least as good as today’s Medicare."

I'm not sure what to think now. Romney's plan, as outlined on his website, is vague to the point of meaninglessness, but I thought he had endorsed Ryan's cap. Now he says he doesn't. So I guess Brooks is off the hook on this.

However, this also makes Romney's plan laughably incomplete. I don't think there are any serious analysts anywhere who think that competitive bidding all by itself will hold down Medicare costs. Without some kind of additional structure, this is just fairy dust.

Revisiting the Debt Ceiling Fiasco

| Tue Oct. 9, 2012 1:35 AM EDT

Bob Woodward's account of the 2011 debt ceiling debacle, The Price of Politics, was published on September 11. In blog time, that's about a century ago, and by now you've probably forgotten it even exists. Nonetheless, Noam Scheiber has written a very good and very detailed review/takedown that's well worth a read. Despite Woodward's conclusion that Obama was largely to blame for the breakdown of talks, Scheiber says that Woodward's own reporting suggests that Republicans were primarily at fault:

There is little in Woodward’s account that undermines this conclusion—in fact, his reporting largely supports it. In May of 2011, Boehner’s deputy, Eric Cantor, and the second-ranking Senate Republican, Jon Kyl, had opened a kind of prelude negotiation with Joe Biden and several top Democratic officials from the administration and Congress. The Republicans balked every time the subject of revenues came up. After Boehner and Obama took over the negotiations the following month, Democrats kept pressing for tax increases. Each time, according to Woodward, they ran smack into Cantor, who had joined Boehner at the bargaining table as the voice of House conservatives—the bad cop to Boehner’s good cop. At best, Cantor said, he’d be willing to close a few small tax loopholes and then offset them with new tax cuts. He reiterated this so often that it became something of a joke.

It is certainly true that, in spite of this resistance, Boehner proposed a deal involving $800 billion in revenue over a decade. The idea would be to gin up the $800 billion through “tax reform” rather than higher taxes—that is, lowering tax rates while closing loopholes in such a way as to increase the government’s take on balance. But, as Woodward shows, the distinction was lost on conservatives, who were dead-set against anything that raised money for the U.S. Treasury. When word of the negotiation leaked in early July, Boehner held a call with the entire Republican caucus to assure them that tax increases were off the table, just in case they got the wrong idea. It didn’t work—they got the wrong idea. House conservatives repeatedly told Boehner they considered “revenue increases” tantamount to the dreaded “tax increases.” Boehner himself concedes to Woodward that while he was negotiating with Obama, Cantor and his other lieutenants “kept saying we’re not going to do a big deal [involving revenues], can’t do a big deal.”

Read the whole thing.

Advertise on MotherJones.com

The Hack Gap Rears Its Ugly Head Yet Again

| Tue Oct. 9, 2012 12:49 AM EDT

The hack gap is a liberal problem of long standing. Put simply, we liberals don't have enough hacks. Conservatives outscore us considerably in the number of bloggers/pundits/columnists/talking heads who are willing to cheerfully say whatever it takes to advance the party line, no matter how ridiculous it is.

My conservative readers may scoff at this notion, but rarely has the hack gap been on such febrile display as it has since last Wednesday's presidential debate. Ask yourself this: can you even imagine Sean Hannity or Rush Limbaugh tearing their hair out over a weak debate performance by Mitt Romney the way that liberals have been over President Obama's? I can't.

Here's how things would have gone if liberals had their fair share of hacks. Obviously Obama wasn't at his best on Wednesday. But when the debate was over that wouldn't have mattered. Conservatives would have started crowing about how well Romney did. Liberals would have acknowledged that Obama should have confronted Romney's deceptions more forcefully, but otherwise would have insisted that Obama was more collected and presidential sounding than the hyperactive Romney and clearly mopped the floor with him on a substantive basis. News reporters would then have simply reported the debate normally: Romney said X, Obama said Y, and both sides thought their guy did great. By the next day it would barely be a continuing topic of conversation, and by Friday the new jobs numbers would have buried it completely.

Instead, liberals went batshit crazy. I didn't watch any commentary immediately after the debate because I wanted to write down my own reactions first, and my initial sense was that Obama did a little bit worse than Romney. But after I hit the Publish button and turned on the TV, I learned differently. As near as I could tell, the entire MSNBC crew was ready to commit ritual suicide right there on live TV, Howard Beale style. Ditto for all their guests, including grizzled pols like Ed Rendell who should have known better. It wasn't just that Obama did poorly, he had delivered the worst debate performance since Clarence Darrow left William Jennings Bryan a smoking husk at the end of Inherit the Wind. And it wasn't even just that. It was a personal affront, a betrayal of everything they thought was great about Obama. And, needless to say, it put Obama's entire second term in jeopardy and made Romney the instant front runner.

For a moment, ignore the fact that these talkers had a stronger reaction than I did. That's why God made lots of different kinds of people: so that we could all have different opinions about stuff. What's amazing is that, as near as I can tell, hardly any liberal pundits held back. Aside from paid campaign workers, no more than a handful decided to pretend that Obama had done well because, hey, that's how the game is played, folks. Those refs aren't going to work themselves, after all. Instead it was a nearly universal feeding frenzy.

You don't normally see the temperamental difference between liberals and conservatives so dramatically on display. Most conservatives simply wouldn't have been willing to slag their guy so badly. Liberals, by contrast, almost seemed to enjoy wallowing in recriminations. It was practically an Olympic tournament to see who could act the most agonized. As a friend just emailed me a few minutes ago, "I can't tell you how many liberals I've had to talk off the ledge today."

In the end, I doubt this will make a big difference. The polls were always going to tighten up a bit after the huge post-convention, post-47% runup for Obama, so I don't attribute as much of his recent poll decline to the debates as most people do. Obama has plenty of time to come back, and the fundamentals — his incumbency, the economy, and Romney's stiffness as a candidate — still suggest a modest Obama win in November. But if I'm wrong, and this does make a big difference, it will be 100% attributable to the hack gap. Without that, Obama's debate performance would barely have registered. This was a completely avoidable debacle.

Mitt Romney's Foreign Policy in 3 Sentences

| Mon Oct. 8, 2012 5:39 PM EDT

There's so little interesting news today that I finally caved in. I read Mitt Romney's big foreign policy speech. Below, I've picked out all of the pieces that appear to represent actual policy goals:

  1. I will put the leaders of Iran on notice that the United States and our friends and allies will prevent them from acquiring nuclear weapons capability.
  2. I will make further reforms to our foreign assistance to create incentives for good governance, free enterprise, and greater trade, in the Middle East and beyond.
  3. I will champion free trade and restore it as a critical element of our strategy, both in the Middle East and across the world.
  4. I will vigorously pursue the terrorists who attacked our consulate in Benghazi and killed Americans.
  5. In Afghanistan, I will pursue a real and successful transition to Afghan security forces by the end of 2014.
  6. In Egypt, I will use our influence—including clear conditions on our aid—to urge the new government to represent all Egyptians, to build democratic institutions, and to maintain its peace treaty with Israel.
  7. I will recommit America to the goal of a democratic, prosperous Palestinian state living side by side in peace and security with the Jewish state of Israel.
  8. I will reaffirm our historic ties to Israel and our abiding commitment to its security—the world must never see any daylight between our two nations.
  9. I will roll back President Obama’s deep and arbitrary cuts to our national defense that would devastate our military.
  10. In Syria, I will work with our partners to identify and organize those members of the opposition who share our values and ensure they obtain the arms they need to defeat Assad’s tanks, helicopters, and fighter jets.

As near as I can tell:

  • Items 1-6 are, with minor differences in emphasis, essentially the same as various bits of Obama's existing foreign policy.
  • Item 7 can be safely ignored. In the video of his Boca Raton fundraiser, Romney made it pretty clear that he thinks a Palestinian state is a lost cause.
  • Items 8-10 specify genuine differences with Obama.

Aside from a return to George Bush levels of bluster, then, Romney plans to outsource our policy toward Israel to Benjamin Netanyahu. He'll take a defense budget that's already fantastically higher than any other country in the world and add a couple trillion dollars to it. And he'll supply arms to the rebels in Syria. 

Will he close Guantanamo? End drone strikes? Issue an executive order banning the assassination of U.S. citizens overseas? Speak up against torture? Reform the military tribunal process? Nope. He appears to think everything is hunky dory on those fronts.

Bottom line: Romney will buy more ships, never disagree with Benjamin Netanyahu, and arm the Syrian rebels. If you're impressed by that, I'd guess that Romney's your man. I'd also guess that you're easily impressed.

UPDATE: Fred Kaplan is even less impressed than I was: "Mitt Romney has delivered a lot of dishonest speeches in recent months, but Monday’s address on foreign policy may be the most mendacious yet." More detail — much more — here.

If You Want to Fix the Economy, You Need to Know What's Broken

| Mon Oct. 8, 2012 1:04 PM EDT

In the Washington Post a few days ago, Danielle Douglas reported that deposits in savings accounts have skyrocketed recently:

The total amount in those accounts climbed nearly 5 percent to $6.9 trillion in the spring, the highest level recorded since the Federal Reserve launched its regular reports on the flow of money in the economy in 1945. At the same time, other data show that Americans are fleeing the stock market and avoiding the purchase of new homes.

Dean Baker is not happy:

The problem with the article is that people actually are not saving excessively.... This is not a debatable point where we will have Keynesians giving one line and conservative economists giving another. This is data that is available to anyone who takes a moment to look at the Commerce Department's website.

....Unfortunately, the Post is not alone in this confusion. There are many accounts in the business press about consumers holding back as a result of concern about the state of the economy. The same is frequently claimed about investment....But if we look at the data from the Commerce Department, investment in equipment and software is almost back to its pre-recession level....Given the huge amounts of excess capacity in many sectors, this is actually an impressive level of investment. This is certainly not consistent with the story of firms who are hoarding cash and scared to go out on a limb.

....If we look at the data on the volume of existing home sales, the recent annual rate of 4.8 million is more than 20% above the 3.9 million average of 1993-1995, the last years before bubble-generated exuberance began to drive sales. The same story applies to house prices. Inflation-adjusted house prices are even with or above their long-term trend, according to the Case-Shiller national index.

....These basic, irrefutable facts are absolutely central to our understanding of the economy — yet most public debate starts from premises that are completely wrong on these and other issues.

I'd add to this that the percentage of Americans with investments in the stock market has been declining for a decade. This might have something to do with the economy, but more likely has to do with demographic trends. The usual advice given to ordinary people is to reduce their holdings of volatile securities as they age, and as the Baby Boomers have aged they've done exactly that. We should probably expect this trend to continue for some time.

In any case, Dean is right: there's plenty to argue about on the economic front, but basic economic data isn't part of it. This stuff is pretty easily available, after all. The personal savings rate is currently hovering around 4%, roughly the same as it's been for the past 15 years. Businesses are investing, and home prices are back at their historical trend level. "This matters hugely," says Dean, "because there is no possibility of changing policy if people don't have a clue as to the nature of the economy's current problems and how policy could be changed to make things better. In this sense, the confusion hugely benefits the elites. After all, they are fat and happy."

Indeed. It's too bad his piece was published across the Atlantic in the Guardian, instead of in the Washington Post, where it belonged.

Apparently Mitt Romney Needs to Lie to Americans About His Foreign Policy

| Mon Oct. 8, 2012 11:53 AM EDT

Dan Drezner recommends Danielle Pletka's foreign policy advice to Mitt Romney in the New York Times this weekend. So let's take a look, shall we? Having "met him on a few occasions," Pletka believes there really is more substance to Romney than his usual campaign nonsense about never apologizing for America. Here's what he needs to do:

Mr. Romney needs to persuade people that he’s not simply a George W. Bush retread, eager to go to war in Syria and Iran and answer all the mail with an F-16. He needs to understand that even though Mr. Obama’s so-called pivot to Asia is more rhetorical flourish than actual policy, it responds to a crying need.

....Mr. Romney must make clear that he has a strategic view of American power that is different from the Obama administration’s narrow and tactical approach. He must tell Americans that he won’t overlook terrorist threats, as the Obama administration did in Benghazi; that he won’t fight to oust a dictator in Libya and ignore the pleas of another revolution in Syria; that he won’t simply denounce Iran’s nuclear program while tacitly legitimizing the country’s theocratic regime and ignoring its opponents; and that he won’t hand out billions of dollars in aid and debt forgiveness to Egypt’s new leaders when the principles of religious and political freedom are being trampled in the streets of Cairo.

Stop me if I'm wrong, but as near as I can tell Pletka says in one breath that Romney needs to make it clear that he's not just a mindless hawk who's eager to go to war with Syria and Iran, and in the next breath says that he needs to make it clear that he is eager to go to war with Syria and Iran. As Dan would say, am I missing something here?

More generally, I'm really, really tired of the whole "advice to Mitt Romney" column genre. They're all basically identical: telling him he needs to do things that he has very plainly, very consciously decided he can't do if he wants to win the election. He can't beat the tar out of Obama in every stump speech because his focus groups show that independents don't like it. He can't provide details of his tax plan because all those deductions he wants to get rid of are popular with independents. He can't get more specific on foreign policy because his base demands hawkishness but independents really don't want to hear that. He can't speak honestly to the American people about entitlement reform because independents don't want to hear that their Medicare benefits are going to be cut. Etc.

Bottom line: all that stuff that columnists think would resonate like the ringing of the Liberty Bell? It won't, and Romney knows it. He knows perfectly well that the actual details of conservative policy aren't very popular at the moment, so he's fudging things. It's his only chance to win. Conservative columnists ought to be smart enough to know that.