Kevin Drum - November 2012

Why Do Women Think Inflation is Higher Than Men?

| Fri Nov. 16, 2012 8:29 AM PST

Tyler Cowen finds an old article showing that perception of inflation is usually much higher than actual inflation, and that women overestimate it much more than men. Why?

Is it possible that a high perception of inflation is largely the result of a relatively low real income, perhaps mixed in with a slight unwillingness to blame oneself for imperfect labor market prospects? Does this help explain why tight money and stagnant median income have come together?

I'm just guessing, but these don't seem like hard questions. People overestimate inflation because (a) they notice price increases much more than price decreases, and (b) the emotional impact of a few outliers with very high increases is unusually strong. And women overestimate inflation more because they tend to do more grocery shopping than men, thus exposing themselves to prices more routinely.

I can see how those with low incomes would also be more sensitive to price increases, so it makes sense that they also tend to have high estimates of inflation. But I'll bet you ten bucks—no, wait, better make that twenty—that an unwillingness to blame oneself for imperfect labor market prospects plays no role at all. I'd be fascinated to even hear a plausible mechanism for that.

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Republicans Desperately Need a Scandal

| Thu Nov. 15, 2012 12:56 PM PST

Paul Waldman explains why Republicans have gone batshit crazy over Benghazi:

So what's going on here? I can sum it up in two words: scandal envy. Republicans are indescribably frustrated by the fact that Barack Obama, whom they regard as both illegitimate and corrupt, went through an entire term without a major scandal. They tried with "Fast and Furious," but that turned out to be small potatoes. They tried with Solyndra, but that didn't produce the criminality they hoped for either. Obama even managed to dole out three-quarters of a trillion dollars in stimulus money without any graft or double-dealing to be found. Nixon had Watergate, Reagan had Iran-Contra, Clinton had Lewinsky, [and don't forget that Bush had the Plame affair and the Abramoff scandal! ed] and Barack Obama has gotten off scott-free. This is making them absolutely livid, and they're going to keep trying to gin up a scandal, even if there's no there there. Benghazi may not be an actual scandal, but it's all they have handy.

Yep. They're just convinced that Obama runs a gang of Chicago thugs who are lying and cheating behind the scenes at every opportunity. It's a foundational story on the tea-party right. Unfortunately, the reality is that whatever else you think of Obama, he's one of the straightest arrows we've had in the White House since....forever. He runs a tight ship organizationally, and on a personal level he's so intolerant of personal peccadilloes that he sometimes seems almost inhuman. It would be astonishing if he could actually avoid a serious scandal for an entire eight-year term, but if anyone can do it, it's probably Obama.

And yes, it's driving Republicans crazy. Even the ones who don't want to impeach him at least want to bring him down to earth a bit. So they latch onto anything they can.  It's all starting to seem kind of desperate, but I doubt they're going to let that stop them. After all, it eventually worked against Clinton.

We Are All Fixated on the Wrong Deficit Number

| Thu Nov. 15, 2012 11:16 AM PST

Over at CAP, Sarah Ayres and Michael Linden have a post about how much the Simpson-Bowles plan proposes to increase revenues (i.e. taxes). The press usually reports it as $1.2 trillion, they say, but the real number is $2.7 trillion. Why the difference? It depends on what timeframe you use (eight years vs. ten years), your baseline (current law vs. current policy), and a few other things. In other words, it's complicated.

I think this is a good reason why we should all stop talking about changes in revenue and spending compared to current levels. There are just too many games you can play with that. Instead, we should simply pick a year, and then describe what happens that year under the plan in question. So we might pick, say, 2017, and report what the budget will look like under various proposals. That's much harder to fudge.

Simpson-Bowles, for example, says that in 2017 their plan produces about $3.6 trillion in revenue and $4 trillion in spending, for a deficit of $421 billion, or 2.3 percent of GDP. (It's Figure 16 in this report.) Those are the three numbers we should want to see. Obviously we're also interested in the details of how they raise revenue and cut spending, and those details might continue to be tricky to describe. But the basic figures we should be interested in aren't how much spending and taxes go up or down, which are too easy to manipulate, but simply what spending and taxes will be.

I don't imagine this is going to happen anytime soon, but I thought I'd toss it out there.

Time to Put an End to the Exit Poll Charade?

| Thu Nov. 15, 2012 10:34 AM PST

Michael Kinsley is tired of the exit poll charade. TV analysts, he says, almost certainly know the results of the election early in the evening, but aren't allowed to say so until the polls close. So they engage in a weird dance:

Exit poll data is supposed to be used for demographic insights only, not to predict the result. You can say, "Republicans are doing well tonight among upper-middle class white men aged 35 to 45, wearing red sweater vests and answering to the name of 'Champ.'" But you can't say, "Chances are better than even that Obama's got it in the bag."

You can learn a lot from tiny samplings by comparing them with past results. By 6 p.m. Eastern time on election night, CNN undoubtedly knew that President Obama was almost certain to win reelection. And it pretty much knew the electoral college count. But it thought it best to deny this information to its viewers.

I happen to agree that the exit poll charade is a little wearying, even though the motive behind it is reasonable. But in this case, I'm not sure Kinsley is right. If the nets really knew who was going to win Ohio and Virginia by 6 pm, they would have called them at 8:01, when the polls closed. But they didn't. They didn't call Ohio until after 11 pm. Sure, it was obvious before then that things were trending in Obama's direction, but the timing of their calls suggests that, in fact, they weren't "almost certain" until well after 6 pm. The election may not have been a "tossup," as so many folks pretended, but it was still pretty close.

Benghazi: A Conspiracy Theory With No Conceivable Motive

| Thu Nov. 15, 2012 9:19 AM PST

Matt Steinglass makes a point about the whole Benghazi "coverup" narrative that I didn't have space to make in my post yesterday. He agrees that Susan Rice did nothing wrong, but says there's more to it:

This is absolutely right as far as it goes, but it doesn't go far enough. At the most fundamental level, the reason it is absurd to suspect the existence of a "cover-up" over the Benghazi attack is that such a cover-up could not have had any conceivable goal. Back to the beginning: the underlying accusation about Benghazi is that the Obama administration deliberately mischaracterised the terrorist attack there as having grown out of a spontaneous demonstration because that would be less politically damaging. Such a cover-up would have made no sense because the attack would not have been less politically damaging had it grown out of a spontaneous demonstration. The attack on the Benghazi compound would not have been any less politically difficult for the administration if it had grown out of a riot, nor would any normal voter have expected it to be less politically damaging, nor would any normal campaign strategist have expected any normal voter to have expected it to be less politically damaging.

As best I can tell, the suggestion from the right has been that Obama didn't want to admit that Benghazi was a terrorist attack because....well, I'm not sure, exactly. Something about how this would blow a hole in his claim to be decimating al-Qaeda via drone attacks. Or maybe it would remove some of the luster from being the killer of Osama bin Laden. Or something. But one way or another, the story is that Obama was deeply afraid of admitting that terrorists are still out there and want to do us harm.

This has never made a lick of sense. If anything, the continuing existence of terrorists justifies his drone attacks. And it certainly wouldn't do him any harm in an election. The American public routinely rallies around a president responding to a terrorist attack.

Dave Weigel has more here, responding to Sean Higgins, who manages to read all the transcripts of Rice's Sunday show appearances and still claim that she somehow misled the public. "There is considerable evidence that they knew even the day of the attacks that there had in fact been no protests and that the attacks were planned," says Higgins. "Who knew what when and whether the administration was trying to cover it up is precisely what Congress is trying to determine."

Actually, there's considerable evidence that on September 15, when Rice taped her appearances, the CIA told her there had been protests in Benghazi earlier in the day. The CIA turned out to be wrong about that, but it simply makes no sense for them to have made this up. If it does anything at all, it only makes their response look worse. This whole thing is a conspiracy theory with no conceivable motive. It's  a wild, scattershot attack hoping to take down someone, somewhere, just to claim a scalp. It's disgusting.

The Gerrymander Effect, Take 2

| Wed Nov. 14, 2012 9:38 PM PST

Earlier today I linked to a post from Eric McGhee suggesting that the post-2010 gerrymandering of the House by Republican legislatures had only a modest effect on this year's results. You will be unsurprised to learn that I got a lot of pushback on this, which prompted me to go back and check out other research on the subject. Before I got too far, though, I remembered that Sam Wang had done a bunch of work on this, so I went over to his site to see what he came up with.

His methodology is too complicated to try to summarize, but here are his conclusions:

  • Prior to 2010, there was no systematic, nationwide effect from gerrymandering. (See here for more on this.) There was an incumbency effect, in which the majority party has a tendency to keep its majority, but otherwise no net lean in the direction of either Democrats or Republicans when you account for district lines in all 50 states.
  • The 2010 redistricting was more one-sided than in past years.
  • As a result, there's now a net, systematic, nationwide lean in the direction of the Republican Party. The size of their advantage is calculated as the average vertical distance between the red and black lines in the chart on the right, which turns out to be 6.3 seats.

So the 2010 redistricting really was unusually partisan. But the size of the Republican advantage turns out to be about six seats, very similar to what Eric McGhee came up with. The incumbency effect is about double that, for a total built-in Republican advantage of roughly 20 seats. Accounting for uncertainty, the Republican advantage is 10-30 seats, which is right in line with how much they outperformed the popular vote this year.

I'm interested in further research on this subject, but for now we've got two methodologies that produce pretty much the same result. The Republican gerrymander following the 2010 census has given them a permanent tailwind of about six seats, and they'll keep this for the rest of the decade. Combine that with the incumbency effect, and Democrats are unlikely to regain the majority unless they win about 52 percent of the popular vote.

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Romney: Obama Won the Election by Doing Stuff That People Liked

| Wed Nov. 14, 2012 6:24 PM PST

Mitt Romney told his donors today that President Obama won last week because of the "big gifts" that he gave to "the African-American community, the Hispanic community and young people." According to the New York Times, here's what he said:

With regards to the young people, for instance, a forgiveness of college loan interest, was a big gift. Free contraceptives were very big with young college-aged women. And then, finally, Obamacare also made a difference for them, because as you know, anybody now 26 years of age and younger was now going to be part of their parents’ plan, and that was a big gift to young people. They turned out in large numbers, a larger share in this election even than in 2008.

....You can imagine for somebody making $25,000 or $30,000 or $35,000 a year, being told you’re now going to get free health care, particularly if you don’t have it, getting free health care worth, what, $10,000 per family, in perpetuity, I mean, this is huge. Likewise with Hispanic voters, free health care was a big plus. But in addition with regards to Hispanic voters, the amnesty for children of illegals, the so-called Dream Act kids, was a huge plus for that voting group.

I'm inclined to cut Romney some slack on this. Sure, it's a little crude and a little defensive, but it's basically right. The HHS decision on contraceptives became a cornerstone of Obama's pitch to women (though it wouldn't have had much effect if Republicans hadn't gone nuts over it). The mini-DREAM Act was explicitly part of his outreach to Hispanics. And Obamacare was certainly an effort to provide big healthcare subsidies to millions of people who aren't currently insured. This is all garden-variety politics.

What's missing, of course, is that Romney played the same game. He appealed to rich people (and the middle class) with his promises of big tax cuts. He appealed to conservative Christians and Roman Catholics with his promise to reverse the contraceptive decision. He appealed to the elderly with promises to restore the $716 billion he claimed Obama had taken away from Medicare. Etc. Again, this is garden-variety politics. I can't really get too worked up about it.

Welcome to the Fever Swamps: Agenda 21 and the Fall of America

| Wed Nov. 14, 2012 3:52 PM PST

Of all the inexplicable tea party conspiracy theories that started making the rounds after the 2008 election, perhaps the most inexplicable of all is their obsession with Agenda 21. In real life, Agenda 21 is an earnest sustainable development initiative created by the UN two decades ago, and its impact on the world has been just about as negligible as you might imagine. But down in the fever swamps, it's the thin tip of the spear leading us toward a black helicopter future in which Americans are herded into urban concentration camps and forced to eat tofu.

What's that? You think I'm exaggerating? Well, it is something I might do if I thought I could get a laugh out of it. But no such luck, folks. For a true descent into madness, check out two fine pieces of investigative reporting right here at MoJo. The first is here, starring Glenn Beck, and the second is here, starring the Georgia Republican state senate caucus. Enjoy!

Today in Good News: Obama Vigorously Defends Susan Rice

| Wed Nov. 14, 2012 1:49 PM PST

At his press conference today, President Obama got pretty heated when he was asked about threats from Lindsey Graham and John McCain to block the nomination of Susan Rice to be Secretary of State. Here's his response:

Let me say specifically about Susan Rice: She has done exemplary work....If Senator McCain and Senator Graham and others want to go after somebody, they should go after me. And I'm happy to have that discussion with them. But for them to go after the U.N. ambassador? Who had nothing to do with Benghazi? And was simply making a presentation based on intelligence that she had received? To besmirch her reputation is outrageous.

Graham doubled down as soon as he heard this:

Mr. President, don’t think for one minute I don’t hold you ultimately responsible for Benghazi. I think you failed as Commander in Chief before, during, and after the attack....Given what I know now, I have no intention of promoting anyone who is up to their eyeballs in the Benghazi debacle.

The insanity over this has become positively Clintonian. Here's what Susan Rice actually said on the Sunday talk shows about the Benghazi attacks of September 11:

  • Early in the day, there were demonstrations in Cairo inspired by a hateful YouTube video.
  • This in turn appeared to have inspired a "copycat" protest in Benghazi.
  • That protest was then "hijacked" by extremists, who used it as an excuse to storm the consulate and murder four Americans.

That's it. That's the formulation she used on Face the Nation, Meet the Press, This Week, and State of the Union. She was very cautious, too, emphasizing that an investigation was ongoing and this was the "best information" available at the time. And it was: this was what the intelligence community told her in briefings before she taped those interviews.

Out of all that, the only thing she got wrong was her suggestion that there had been a copycat protest in Benghazi. "The facts are there was never a riot," Graham said, and he was right. But he said that a month later. By then, everyone knew there hadn't been any riots. Back on September 15th, when Rice's TV appearances were taped, we didn't.

Berating Rice, who had nothing to do with Benghazi aside from representing the administration on these talk shows, is nuts. The intelligence community was wrong about one relatively unimportant fact, and Rice passed along that mistake. That's it. There's no coverup, no conspiracy, no incompetence, no scandal.

And one more thing: mainstream press outlets that report on this need to start being more careful. No breezy summations suggesting that "Rice blamed the attacks on a video." She didn't. If you're going to report on this, you need to report on what Rice actually said, and you need to make clear why she said it. This is real life, not a video game.

Obama Refuses to Get Tough on Taxes

| Wed Nov. 14, 2012 12:04 PM PST

How committed is President Obama to letting the Bush tax cuts for the rich expire? At his press conference today, he gave a fuzzy answer, so Chuck Todd followed up and asked him if he's absolutely committed to repealing the Bush tax cuts for the rich, no ifs, ands, or buts.

Obama declined to say yes. He said he wouldn't accept revenue increases that come from dynamic scoring magic or from vague loophole closing, but he's committed to compromise. The American people demand it. Blah blah blah.

This is not a very promising start. Getting Republicans to support an extension of the middle-class cuts without an extension of the high-end cuts was always going to be hard. Without a rock-solid commitment to veto any bill that maintains a 35 percent top marginal rate, it's even harder. Unless I'm missing something, Obama just left the door wide open to some kind of kludgy compromise that keeps top-end rates at their Bush-era levels.

UPDATE: For what it's worth, most of my readers and commenters seem to think I'm wrong about this. The rough consensus appears to be that Obama is indeed firm about letting the high-end tax cuts expire, but it's not smart politics to draw lines in the sand in a major public forum. That could well be true. I might be reading too much into this. We'll see.