Kevin Drum - November 2012

Quote of the Day: Plan? What Plan?

| Fri Nov. 30, 2012 3:07 PM PST

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.

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Friday Cat Blogging - 30 November 2012

| Fri Nov. 30, 2012 12:54 PM PST

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"?

| Fri Nov. 30, 2012 12:27 PM PST

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?

| Fri Nov. 30, 2012 11:26 AM PST

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

| Fri Nov. 30, 2012 10:40 AM PST

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

| Fri Nov. 30, 2012 9:53 AM PST

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.

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Chart of the Day: Prescription Drug Prices are Skyrocketing

| Fri Nov. 30, 2012 9:18 AM PST

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

| Fri Nov. 30, 2012 4:08 AM PST

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

| Fri Nov. 30, 2012 12:02 AM PST

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

| Thu Nov. 29, 2012 3:36 PM PST

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.