• Quote of the Day: Plan? What Plan?


    From Michael Grunwald, on Republican whinging about President Obama’s budget plan:

    It’s really amazing to see political reporters dutifully passing along Republican complaints that President Obama’s opening offer in the fiscal cliff talks is just a recycled version of his old plan, when those same reporters spent the last year dutifully passing along Republican complaints that Obama had no plan. It’s even more amazing to see them pass along Republican outrage that Obama isn’t cutting Medicare enough, in the same matter-of-fact tone they used during the campaign to pass along Republican outrage that Obama was cutting Medicare.

    Yes, it is sort of amazing, isn’t it? And as Joe Klein says, GOP temper tantrums on this subject are really getting a little old:

    Republicans always seem to be outraged. It’s getting boring. They need to step up and make a counter-offer. That’s how people negotiate. In this case, they need to be specific about the spending cuts they want….But it is time to stow the Republican intemperance. It might have seemed “righteous” indignation when the GOP was deluding itself about representing a majority of Americans; now, it just seems puerile and petulant.

    I guess I’m not going to hold my breath waiting for this. The Republican Party seems to be pretty much defined by umbrage and resentment these days. If they give it up, I’m not sure what they have left.

  • Friday Cat Blogging – 30 November 2012


    Domino wasn’t really cooperative this morning, so I didn’t have a whole lot of catblogging photos to choose from. She did deign to let me take a few pictures, though, before she got up to rub her face against the camera and then go upstairs for her mid-morning snooze (not to be confused with her early morning snooze or her late morning snooze). But it’s raining around here anyway, so what else is there to do?

  • What Exactly is Unclear About “Expressly” and “Shall Not”?


    Adam Serwer has a helluva strange piece up today about Dianne Feinstein’s recently passed amendment blocking indefinite detention of US citizens and legal residents captured on US soil. Here’s the nut of the thing:

    The question of what the Senate actually did hinges on language in the amendment that reads: “An authorization to use military force, a declaration of war, or any similar authority shall not authorize the detention without charge or trial of a citizen or lawful permanent resident of the United States apprehended in the United States unless an Act of Congress expressly authorizes such detention” (emphasis mine). It’s that “unless” that the supporters of indefinite detention latched onto.

    “Senator Feinstein’s amendment…does not prohibit military detention if it is expressly authorized by law,” said Levin, “which I read as a statute authorizing the use of military force itself or some other act of Congress.”….But Feinstein said that the Levin interpretation was incorrect, and that based on a federal court decision in the case of Jose Padilla (the only American accused of terrorism to be held in military detention in the US) the 2001 AUMF doesn’t count as an authorization to detain US citizens captured on American soil indefinitely. 

    This is just….weird. I can imagine thinking that an authorization of military force could also be interpreted as an authorization for indefinite detention, except for the fact that Feinstein’s amendment explicitly says that an authorization of military force “shall not” be interpreted that way. Only an act of Congress that “expressly” authorizes indefinite detention may be interpreted to allow indefinite detention.

    On a related note, why is Feinstein relying on the Padilla case for backup? That was a pretty fuzzy opinion, wasn’t it? Isn’t Hamdi more on point? And who cares anyway? Feinstein’s amendment would supersede any court ruling based on statutory grounds, and wouldn’t matter if the Supreme Court ever ruled that indefinite detention was OK on constitutional grounds. What am I missing here?

  • Will Democrats Vote for Filibuster Reform?


    The biggest impediment to filibuster reform has never been Republicans. Senate rules can be changed without them, and their threats of retaliation are mostly bluster. In reality, the biggest impediment has always been Democrats themselves. Harry Reid needs nearly unanimous consent from his own caucus, and there have always been a handful of Dems who are leery of change. The question is, how big a handful? Greg Sargent summarizes the current state of play:

    The Hill reports this morning that senators Dianne Feinstein, Mark Pryor, and Carl Levin are uncomfortable with a simple-majority change. Senators Max Baucus and Jack Reed have yet to be persuaded. Senators John Kerry and Jay Rockefeller say they’re undecided but leaning towards a change. Senator-elect Joe Donnelly is uncommitted. Presuming Republicans vote unanimously against any changes, if Harry Reid loses six votes, filibuster reform is toast.

    It’s unclear what the objections are from these senators. In the case of someone like Dianne Feinstein, it’s probably just institutional conservatism. In the case of someone like Mark Pryor, it’s probably the fact that he represents a conservative state. In the case of more liberal senators, it may be fear of what Republicans can do if and when they return to the majority.

    But any way you slice it, getting 50 Democratic votes is the real challenge here, and if the Hill is right, Reid is having trouble rounding up those votes even for the very modest set of reforms he’s proposing. Stay tuned.

  • I Guess the Future Wasn’t at Stake in This Year’s Election After All


    There’s one particular strain of Republican reaction to their election loss that’s always given me the biggest chuckle, and today Paul Waldman highlights it: the absurd proposition that Mitt Romney never forthrightly defended conservative principles.

    Now, it’s true that Republicans didn’t talk about Bush, but that’s because the voters still kind of hate him. But the idea that Republicans “never bothered to contest” Obama’s economic arguments? That they never challenged the “war on women” notion? Seriously?

    You can argue that Mitt Romney was a crappy candidate, but no conservative can reasonably claim that he didn’t make a case for conservatism. In fact, that was the best thing about this election: for all the trivia, it presented a fundamental ideological debate, with both candidates talking about first principles throughout. Conservatives aren’t happy that they lost that argument. But even though it’s not particularly good politics to condemn the voters for not seeing the light, it’s a lot more honest than saying they never got the chance to hear what conservatism had to offer.

    For months, conservatives yelled from the rooftops about how 2012 presented the sharpest choice ever in governing philosophies. I’m too lazy to Google up the quotes, so someone else will have to do that, but we were told relentlessly that Obama was a tax-and-spend liberal. That Obamacare represented the Europeanization of America. That Democrats were hellbent on class warfare. That Obama had contempt for the business community. That liberals were expanding the welfare state in order to lock up the votes of the masses forever. That religious freedom was doomed if Obama was reelected. That American exceptionalism was on trial. That this was our last chance to decide between being free men or sheep cared for by the state.

    This kind of talk filled every nook and cranny of the election, and both Mitt Romney and Paul Ryan joined in. But as soon as they lost, Republicans suddenly decided that it hadn’t been a big-picture election after all. It was about bribing Hispanics. It was about voter turnout machinery. It was about Hurricane Sandy. It was about Mitt Romney being a bad candidate. It was about everything except the actual governing philosophies at issue.

    I don’t really blame conservatives for holding onto this delusion. If I lost an election, I wouldn’t suddenly decide that liberalism was a failure. But the contrast this year is far more striking than usual. More than any election in my memory, conservatives claimed that this one was truly an ideological turning point, America’s last chance to choose what kind of country we should be. But literally within hours of defeat, they turned on a dime and insisted that the American people weren’t given a real chance to decide between two competing visions. And they’ve maintained this claim despite losing the popular vote in the House, the Senate, and the presidency, and despite the fact that demographic trends very clearly spell even further trouble in the future for their hardnosed brand of social intolerance and slavish dedication to the interests of the rich.

    Conservatism can never fail. It can only be failed.

  • Factlet of the Day: The World’s Best-Paid Clerks


    Clerical workers are on strike at the Port of Los Angeles. They aren’t striking over pay or benefits, but this claim still made me sit up a little straighter over my morning corn flakes:

    Stephen Berry, lead negotiator for the shipping lines and cargo terminals, said the clerical workers have been offered a deal that includes “absolute job security,” a raise that would take average annual pay to $195,000 from $165,000, 11 weeks’ paid vacation and a generous pension increase.

    Wow.

  • Chart of the Day: Prescription Drug Prices are Skyrocketing


    Obviously prescription drugs cost more than generics. But prices are also diverging dramatically. Via Austin Frakt, the chart below tells the story. While the price of generic drugs has fallen significantly over the past four years, the price of prescription drugs has skyrocketed, outpacing inflation by more than 50 percent. You’re paying a lot for those name brands.

  • Reining in the Drone War


    Last weekend the New York Times reported on a promising development: the Obama administration is working to develop “explicit rules for the targeted killing of terrorists by unmanned drones.” Needless to say, explicit rules can also be bad rules, so this is no guarantee of progress. Still, there’s some value in publicly agreeing that drone strikes shouldn’t literally be approved solely at the whim of the president.

    Unfortunately, there was a catch: the administration’s newfound dedication to rules was prompted primarily by the possibility that they might lose the election:

    “There was concern that the levers might no longer be in our hands,” said one official, speaking on condition of anonymity. With a continuing debate about the proper limits of drone strikes, Mr. Obama did not want to leave an “amorphous” program to his successor, the official said. The effort, which would have been rushed to completion by January had Mr. Romney won, will now be finished at a more leisurely pace, the official said.

    But it was never Mitt Romney that we needed to worry about. Last month the Washington Post wrote about the Orwellian-sounding “disposition matrix,” a rapidly growing database of targets for a drone fleet operated almost entirely in the shadows:

    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.

    And if you think that at least we’re lucky that Barack Obama can be trusted with this kind of power, think again. As Micah Zenko wrote about the Post’s revelations:

    Having spoken with dozens of officials across both administrations, I am convinced that those serving under President Bush were actually much more conscious and thoughtful about the long-term implications of targeted killings than those serving under Obama….Recently, I spoke to a military official with extensive and wide-ranging experience in the special operations world, and who has had direct exposure to the targeted killing program. To emphasize how easy targeted killings by special operations forces or drones has become, this official flicked his hand back over and over, stating: “It really is like swatting flies. We can do it forever easily and you feel nothing. But how often do you really think about killing a fly?”

    The truth is that it shouldn’t be the president making these rules in the first place. It should be Congress. And outside of war zones, there ought to be serious judicial review as well. Nobody should have the unchecked, unilateral power to kill anyone, anytime, anywhere in the world. And the lesson of history about this is pretty plain: this is a more important principle for people you trust than for people you don’t.

    Congress has ducked its responsibilities here for far too long. President Obama, like any president, should be required to follow rules that Congress has set and that the president can’t change with the stroke of a pen. This is something, at long last, that you’d think Republicans would actually agree with.

  • No, the Social Security Trust Fund Isn’t a Fiction


    Charles Krauthammer is upset that Dick Durbin says Social Security is off the table in the fiscal cliff negotiations because it doesn’t add to the deficit:

    This is absurd. In 2012, Social Security adds $165 billion to the deficit. Democrats pretend that Social Security is covered through 2033 by its trust fund. Except that the trust fund is a fiction, a mere “bookkeeping” device, as the Office of Management and Budget itself has written. The trust fund’s IOUs “do not consist of real economic assets that can be drawn down in the future to fund benefits.” Future benefits “will have to be financed by raising taxes, borrowing from the public, or reducing benefits or other expenditures.”

    What Krauthammer means is that as Social Security draws down its trust fund, it sells bonds back to the Treasury. The money it gets for those bonds comes from the general fund, which means that it does indeed have an effect on the deficit.

    That much is true. But the idea that the trust fund is a “fiction” is absolutely wrong. And since this zombie notion is bound to come up repeatedly over the next few weeks, it’s worth explaining why it’s wrong. So here it is.

    Starting in 1983, the payroll tax was deliberately set higher than it needed to be to cover payments to retirees. For the next 30 years, this extra money was sent to the Treasury, and this windfall allowed income tax rates to be lower than they otherwise would have been. During this period, people who paid payroll taxes suffered from this arrangement, while people who paid income taxes benefited.

    Now things have turned around. As the baby boomers have started to retire, payroll taxes are less than they need to be to cover payments to retirees. To make up this shortfall, the Treasury is paying back the money it got over the past 30 years, and this means that income taxes need to be higher than they otherwise would be. For the next few decades, people who pay payroll taxes will benefit from this arrangement, while people who pay income taxes will suffer.

    If payroll taxpayers and income taxpayers were the same people, none of this would matter. The trust fund really would be a fiction. But they aren’t. Payroll taxpayers tend to be the poor and the middle class. Income taxpayers tend to be the upper middle class and the rich. Long story short, for the past 30 years, the poor and the middle class overpaid and the rich benefited. For the next 30 years or so, the rich will overpay and the poor and the middle class will benefit.

    The trust fund is the physical embodiment of that deal. It’s no surprise that the rich, who didn’t object to this arrangement when it was first made, are now having second thoughts. But make no mistake. When wealthy pundits like Krauthammer claim that the trust fund is a fiction, they’re trying to renege on a deal halfway through because they don’t want to pay back the loans they got.

    As it happens, I think this was a dumb deal. But that doesn’t matter. It’s the deal we made, and the poor and the middle class kept up their end of it for 30 years. Now it’s time for the rich to keep up their end of the deal. Unless you think that promises are just so much wastepaper, this is the farthest thing imaginable from fiction. It’s as real as taxes.

  • Conservative Dogma Is Bad For You


    I guess today is the day for either catastrophic news (sea levels rising faster than we thought, GDP growth worse than we thought) or else political news that just makes me laugh. Earlier this morning I passed along the comical news that Republicans refuse to tell anyone what entitlement cuts they allegedly want to make, and now I learn from MoJo‘s own Erika Eichelberger that our good friends at ALEC have finally gotten the comeuppance they deserve. ALEC is a conservative group that writes model bills for friendly state legislatures, and although they sometimes branch out into things like voter ID laws, most of their focus is on anti-tax and anti-labor bills.

    Every year they write a report extolling the virtues of their work and ranking all 50 states by how slavishly they follow ALEC’s recommendations. But they mostly use statistical comparisons that would embarrass an eighth-grader. They cherry pick, showing the performance of one particular state vs. another. They show only the top seven, or nine, or five states compared to the bottom seven, or nine, or five. They weight every state equally, so big growth in tiny states counts as much as sluggish growth in big states. And guess what? Using their carefully invented measures, states with high ALEC scores always turn out to perform better than states with low ALEC scores. Amazing!

    Well, this year someone finally called their bluff and simply produced a bog-ordinary scatterplot that compared ALEC scores vs. economic performance for all 50 states. And guess what? It turns out that high ALEC scores are correlated with negative employment growth, negative income growth, negative government revenue growth, and no difference in state GDP growth. Erika has all the charts here. Enjoy.

  • Congress About to Get Hit in the Head With the Price of Climate Change


    A few weeks ago I linked to a piece Chris Mooney did for us about the effect of climate change on Hurricane Sandy. Chris made the point that although you can argue about whether climate change is responsible for any particular hurricane, there’s no question that climate change is responsible for a rise in sea level, which makes the damage from hurricanes much worse than it otherwise would be. And that includes Hurricane Sandy. “There is 100 percent certainty that sea level rise made this worse,” sea level expert Ben Strauss said. “Period.”

    Well, it turns out the news is even worse than that. A new study using satellite data suggests that, if anything, forecasts of sea level rise in the most recent IPCC reports have been too low. Global warming is about where the predictions say it should be, but the amount of warming we’re getting is increasing sea level a lot faster than we thought it would. The chart below shows the difference between reality and the two most recent IPCC forecasts.

    This unexpected rise isn’t due to medium-term variability, and it’s not due to a temporary release from Greenland’s ice sheets. The most likely explanation is simply that sea level rise is more sensitive to global warming than we thought. Congress—along with all the skeptics who argue that it’s cheaper to pay the price of climate change than it is to stop it—should think about this when they’re considering the $100 billion in disaster funds that northeastern states are requesting to clean up after Sandy.

  • Chart of the Day: Our Economy’s Real Problem


    Here’s some grim news, courtesy of Brad DeLong. We all know that the economy is operating well below its potential, a problem that congressional Republicans, to their eternal dishonor, are flatly unwilling to allow anyone to deal with. But things are worse than that: the economy’s potential has been going down too. The chart below shows the evolution of the CBO’s estimate of potential GDP between 2007 and now 

    Add up both the drop in potential GDP and the fact that we’re operating well below even that, and the American economy is running at about $2.5 trillion under its forecast from only a few years ago. Congressional action probably can’t fix this entirely, but it could sure fix a lot of it. It’s scandalous that we’re wasting our time talking about invented nonsense like Benghazi and the fiscal cliff instead.

  • New York City’s Murder Rate Was Zero Last Monday


    Matt Steinglass passes along some good news from the Big Apple:

    New York City went a day without a murder on Monday, which according to police was the first time anyone could remember that happening. Overall, the city’s murder rate this year is down 23%, reaching levels last seen in 1960. This is a milestone in the 20-year-long decline of violent crime in the Big Apple. It’s cause for celebration, and Reuters reports that crime expert Tom Repetto attributes the success in part to the city’s aggressive policing strategies, the famous “broken windows” tactics that got started in the 1990s under Ray Kelly, the police chief, and have more recently included the controversial stop-and-frisk policy.

    Hmmm. Broken windows. Really?

    But hold on a minute. Up in Boston, they also had tremendous success in cutting murder rates in the 1990s. But they didn’t focus on the broken-windows strategy, stop-and-frisk, or going after petty offenders. Instead they launched a project called “Operation Ceasefire” to cut gang violence.

    Gangs? Okey dokey.

    But hold on another minute! What’s that you say, Eric Tucker of the Associated Press? Washington, DC is likely to see its first year in decades with less than 100 murders? Wow! In the late 1980s and early 1990s Washington had over 500 murders per year. Why the decline? No single factor, says Mr Tucker. A little of this, a little of that, a little of something else you probably never even thought of.

    Matt suggests this means we shouldn’t look for simple answers:

    What’s the takeaway message? I’d say there are two of them. First of all, beware of takeaway messages! Lots of things in life, maybe most things, often the most important things, don’t have explanations that can be packaged as a simple, coherent thesis. Second, given our inability to explain definitively why the crime rate is falling, we may need some scepticism about the recent push to demand scientifically valid evidence for the effectiveness of social betterment programmes. Random controlled trials might very well have found that the broken-windows strategy doesn’t prevent crime, “Project Ceasefire” doesn’t prevent crime, reducing rates of single motherhood doesn’t prevent crime, family planning doesn’t prevent crime, banning lead doesn’t prevent crime, and so on and so forth; there might have been no statistically significant difference one could isolate for any of these things. And yet it seems extremely likely to me that most or all of these were good things to do! The drop in violent crime probably has to do with all of them.

    I want to be careful here. Crime is a complex problem, and Matt is right that lots of things can affect both its rise and fall. I happen to believe that both “broken windows” and “Operation Ceasefire” programs are effective. And yet, I think he’s 180 degrees off here. If you had lots of different cities with lots of different results, you’d be justified in thinking that lots of different things were responsible. But when you have lots of different cities all showing the exact same thing—a huge and completely unexpected drop in violent crime—does it really make sense that it’s happening for a different reason in every city? It might! But that would sure be a monumental coincidence. More likely, there’s some single factor underlying the decrease that affected the entire country. In fact, since drops in violent crime were also recorded in Canada during the past two decades, and elsewhere around the world during other time periods, it’s probably some worldwide factor. And on that score, gasoline lead reigns supreme. There’s really nothing else that persuasively explains a global rise and fall in violent crime that happens at different times in different countries. More on this later.

  • Republicans Getting Cold Feet on Entitlement Reform


    This cracks me up. We all know that in the negotiations over the fiscal cliff, Democrats want some tax hikes and Republicans want some entitlement cuts. But what cuts do Republicans want?

    A top Democratic official said talks have stalled on this question since Obama and congressional leaders had their friendly-looking post-election session at the White House. “Republicans want the president to own the whole offer upfront, on both the entitlement and the revenue side, and that’s not going to happen because the president is not going to negotiate with himself,” the official said. “There’s a standoff, and the staff hasn’t gotten anywhere. Rob Nabors [the White House negotiator], has been saying: ‘This is what we want on revenues on the down payment. What’s you guys’ ask on the entitlement side?’ And they keep looking back at us and saying: ‘We want you to come up with that and pitch us.’ That’s not going to happen.”

    Well, of course they want the president to make proposals for both sides. Then they can reluctantly agree, and in 2014 run about a billion dollars worth of ads saying that Democrats raised your taxes and cut your Social Security.

    This, of course, is yet more evidence that Republicans know perfectly well that cutting entitlements is unpopular. For some reason, however, they’ve lashed themselves to this particular mast, and now they have to figure out a way to wriggle out from beneath it. Their cunning plan is to make Democrats responsible for all the unpopular proposals and then paint themselves as the protectors of the middle class. But no matter what you think of Obama’s negotiating skills, no one’s a big enough idiot to agree to that.

    Here in the real world, it’s time for Republicans to put their cards on the table. You want to cut granny’s Medicare? Let’s hear your plans. If you want to cut the deficit in the medium term, that also means cutting benefits in the medium term, and that in turn means cutting benefits for current retirees. You can’t use the old wheeze about leaving everything alone for everyone over 55.

    The blowhard axis of the GOP has been complaining for weeks that Republicans would have won the election if only they’d stuck to Paul Ryan’s guns on this stuff instead of muzzling him. Well, now they have a chance to find out. It’s time to step up to the plate.

  • Et Tu, Susan?


    The Washington Post reports on the latest in the Republican jihad against Susan Rice:

    Even moderate Republican and onetime Rice supporter Sen. Susan Collins (Maine) declined to offer her backing after their 75-minute private session Wednesday….Collins told reporters she was “troubled” that Rice had “decided to play what was essentially a political role at the height of a contentious presidential election campaign” by appearing on five political talk shows to present the administration’s position.

    Et tu, Susan? It’s deeply depressing that even Susan Collins is endorsing this idiocy, and doing it with such transparent BS. I mean, her complaint is that Rice’s mere appearance on the Sunday talk shows was somehow inappropriate? Seriously? She couldn’t be bothered to invent anything more plausible than that?

    The Post story suggests that nominating Rice “could cost the White House valuable goodwill with Republicans,” but honestly, it’s hard to see how. If you actually parse what they’re saying about Rice, there’s literally nothing there. They’re simply rephrasing perfectly ordinary actions to make them sound somehow sinister. If even the moderates have decided to go along with this shabby travesty, it means there’s not currently even a shred of goodwill among Republicans on this issue. It’s hard to see how nominating Rice could reduce that any further.

  • Why the Super Rich Have Turned So Bitterly Against Obama


    Ezra Klein talks to Chrystia Freeland about why the super rich dislike Obama so bitterly:

    Klein: My experience is that the very rich are open to higher taxes in the context of a deficit deal….But they don’t like the idea that their money should be redistributed simply because they have too much of it….And so that’s part of the tension: They don’t like why Obama is raising their taxes. And they certainly don’t like the lack of admiration he’s showing while trying to do it. They see it as punishing their success.

    Freeland: I completely agree. I think Obama and the economists around him have a very sophisticated understanding of both globalization and the technology revolution and the impact they’re having on the world economy and the way they’re creating these winner-take-all spirals. The positive scenario, which I think is a bit pollyannaish, is all you need to do is improve the education system and change the skill set and all will be well. And even that takes a lot of investment and a lot of time. But there’s actually the possibility that in order to have a healthy middle class, you’re going to need to have a more redistributive society, at least for awhile. I think that’s something the American super-rich don’t think about much. One guy who’s a liberal Democratic guy, who has worked in Washington for Democrats, who I quote in my book, he said to me, maybe this is how the world is. Maybe the 1950s were an aberration and the way the economy naturally works is this wide difference in distribution.

    I’d add something to this. I think it’s quite possible for rich individuals to agree, in the abstract, that things have changed over the past 30 years in a way that’s benefited the rich tremendously as a class. But that doesn’t mean they agree, in concrete terms, that they themselves have benefited from anything in particular. And they don’t like being made to pay a price for something they feel they aren’t personally responsible for.

    A Wall Street lawyer who makes $500,000 per year probably would have made half that much in 1980. The extra pay is solely due to broad economic and political trends, not because the 2012 lawyer works harder or knows more. That’s easy to concede in the abstract. But it’s quite another thing to suggest that the 2012 lawyer should therefore pay higher taxes to make up for this. That doesn’t feel like fairness, it feels like punishment. And that’s how they view it.

  • Inside the Conservative Bubble


    Bruce Bartlett has a piece in The American Conservative that tells the story of his excommunication from the conservative movement, and it’s gotten a lot of attention on the left. I’m already familiar with the outlines of what happened, so I only now got around to reading his story. And it turns out that the most interesting passage has nothing to do Bartlett per se. It’s what happened after Ron Suskind published a New York Times piece that quoted some of Bartlett’s criticism of George Bush and the GOP:

    Interestingly, a couple of days after the Suskind article appeared, I happened to be at a reception for some right-wing organization that many of my think tank friends were also attending. I assumed I would get a lot of grief for my comments in the Suskind article and was surprised when there was none at all.

    Finally, I started asking people about it. Not one person had read it or cared in the slightest what the New York Times had to say about anything. They all viewed it as having as much credibility as Pravda and a similar political philosophy as well. Some were indignant that I would even suspect them of reading a left-wing rag such as the New York Times.

    I was flabbergasted. Until that moment I had not realized how closed the right-wing mind had become. Even assuming that my friends’ view of the Times’ philosophy was correct, which it most certainly was not, why would they not want to know what their enemy was thinking? This was my first exposure to what has been called “epistemic closure” among conservatives—living in their own bubble where nonsensical ideas circulate with no contradiction.

    That’s remarkable. Even with the low opinion I have of modern movement conservatives, it never occurred to me that they literally thought of the New York Times as simply a left-wing version of Fox News. Yikes.

  • The Optimal Tax Plan Is Also the Least Likely Tax Plan


    What would be the best thing to do with the Bush tax cuts? Letting them expire on December 31 is a bad idea because the economy is still in fragile shape and a big tax increase would probably send the U.S. back into recession. Extending them permanently is a bad idea because we need to raise more revenue in the future and reduce the medium-term deficit. Letting only the high-end tax cuts expire is OK, but it’s not optimal either. It doesn’t raise enough money in the long term and it feeds the fiction that middle-class taxes will never have to go up.

    The best option is to let everything expire, and then pass a new tax cut that phases out over time. The new tax cut might be a reduction in rates equal to the Bush tax cuts, or it might be some other set of reductions. It doesn’t matter very much. What does matter is that one-quarter of the cuts should expire in 2014, another quarter in 2015, another in 2016, and another in 2017. This would have a gradual effect on the economy, it would require no further congressional action, it would improve our medium-term deficit problem, it would take effect primarily while the economy is recovering, and it would do no more than eventually return us to the tax levels of the Clinton era. There are more complicated approaches you could think of—tagging the expiration dates to economic benchmarks, for example—but in this case, simpler is better. Just phase out the cut over four years and be done with it. That’s easy for people to plan for.

    So why won’t this happen? Because there’s no constituency for it. Republicans won’t get behind it because they want permanent tax cuts. Obama won’t get behind it because it’s effectively a tax increase on the middle class, something he’s promised to oppose. Independents might get behind it, but their political influence is approximately zero.

    So that’s the situation we’re in. The best solution is probably the least likely to be enacted. Welcome to Washington.

  • White House Supports Filibuster Reform


    This is not a big surprise, but today the White House announced its support for filibuster reform:

    “The President has said many times that the American people are demanding action,” White House Communications Director Dan Pfeiffer said in a statement to The Huffington Post. “They want to see progress, not partisan delay games. That hasn’t changed, and the President supports Majority Leader Reid’s efforts to reform the filibuster process.”

    This is important for more than PR reasons. Although there’s some disagreement about how the filibuster rules can be changed, most observers agree that it requires a ruling from the president of the Senate, aka Joe Biden. And Biden isn’t going to support filibuster reform unless his boss supports it too.

    So while this is no surprise, it’s a necessary piece of the puzzle. Harry Reid still needs to get 51 members of the Democratic Caucus to agree to a plan, but if he does there’s nothing standing in the way of implementing it.

  • Social Security’s Problems Are 20 Years Away, Not 75 Years


    Matt Yglesias is unimpressed with Dick Durbin’s proposal for a new commission to insure the long-term solvency of Social Security:

    If people want to waste their time on this, I don’t have a huge objection to the idea of somewhat higher taxes and somewhat skimpier benefits, but I think it’s pretty silly. Recall that 75 years ago was 1937. Any minute spent in 1937 worrying about actuarial projections about 2012 as opposed to, say, Adolf Hitler or the Great Depression would have been a minute wasted.

    ….The deal worth trying to make on Social Security would be a deal that found a way to take the program outside the somewhat fantastical realm of trust fund accounting. Assessing the “affordability” of a social insurance scheme in terms of the state of its associated accounting instruments rather than the capacity of the economy to carry the load is very misleading. The actually policy question at any given time is what share of national resources should go to raising the living standards of the elderly.

    I don’t want to make this blog into Social Security Central, especially since I’m not super committed to finding a deal right this second. Still, this deserves some pushback. First, we aren’t talking about a 75-year horizon. The latest projection from the trustees shows the Social Security trust fund running out of money in 2033. That’s only 20 years away, considerably closer than Matt’s own retirement, which I assume he’s already planning for. At that point, Social Security benefits will suddenly drop 25% unless we do something about it.

    Now, this projection might be wrong. The Great Recession has done a lot of damage to the trust fund projections, but we won’t be in a recession forever. And these projections have been inaccurate before. However, although these are all arguments I’ve made myself in the past, I no longer believe I was right about them. The truth is that 20 years isn’t a long time, and it’s unlikely that the projections are off by more than a decade at most. This is a problem that’s worth addressing.

    Second, getting outside the realm of trust fund accounting is precisely what a deal would be about. Regardless of what you think about the trust fund, it’s only going to last another couple of decades. After that, Social Security will have to be properly financed on a cash basis. This means that tax income in any given year needs to match benefit payments in that year. That’s what this entire issue is about.

    So: a Social Security deal would allow the program to operate without the trust fund, and it would keep the program solvent beyond the current trust fund exhaustion date of 2033. It would also probably make it solvent for the rest of the century, but that’s just icing on the cake. This is a problem that’s worth spending time on.