Kevin Drum - December 2012

What Are Congress' Options on Gun Control?

| Mon Dec. 17, 2012 9:20 AM PST

Wayne LaPierre, the head of the NRA, said last year that Barack Obama's apparent indifference to gun control was just a ruse:

Obama himself is no fool. So when he got elected, they concocted a scheme to stay away from the gun issue, lull gun owners to sleep, and play us for fools in 2012. Well, gun owners are not fools and we are not fooled.

Sotomayor, Kagan, Fast & Furious, the United Nations, executive orders. Those are the facts we face today…President Obama and his cohorts, yeah, they're going to deny their conspiracy to fool gun owners. Some in the liberal media, they are already probably blogging about it. But we don't care because the lying, conniving Obama crowd can kiss our Constitution!

I guess LaPierre was right. Obama has apparently been waiting his entire term for a series of horrific massacres that would give him an excuse to make a speech suggesting vaguely that he might be willing to do something. Maybe.

But what? Quite aside from the political resistance of the NRA, the Supreme Court's Heller decision in 2008 ruled that the Second Amendment did indeed protect a personal right to bear arms. This puts a significant limit on what Congress could do even if it wanted to. So here's roughly where we stand:

  • Automatic weapons, the kind you see on TV spraying a hail of bullets as the bad guy sweeps a crowd, have been tightly regulated since the '30s.
  • Semi-automatic weapons, which require you to squeeze the trigger for each shot, can't be banned. Virtually every handgun on the market is semi-automatic, and the Supreme Court wouldn't allow a broad class of guns like this to be banned or even strongly regulated.
  • "Assault weapons" are a tricky category to define, but they've been banned in the past and could probably be banned again. (Though a new ban would almost certainly be litigated in light of Heller.)

So what's left? Possibly a limit on magazine size, which could probably pass constitutional muster. What else? I'm curious to know what my readers think of this. Given the political and constitutional limitations, as well as considerations of what kinds of policies might actually be effective, what would you like to see Congress do?

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Did the Fed's Announcement on Wednesday Work?

| Sun Dec. 16, 2012 7:48 PM PST

On Wednesday, the Fed unexpectedly announced that it would maintain low interest rates at least until unemployment had dropped below 6.5 percent, and that it would tolerate inflation of up to 2.5 percent in order to get there. This was more aggressive forward guidance than it had ever given before, and if the Fed's guidance is effective, it should have had an effect on medium-term interest rates. So did it?

The chart on the right shows the yield of 10-year treasury bonds on Wednesday. In the morning, before the Fed announcement, they were trading around 1.65-1.66. After the Fed announcement they were trading around 1.69. That's an increase of about two percent.

I'd like to hear from the market monetarists about this. Does a change of this magnitude mean the Fed's guidance was effective? Or ineffective? My recollection—which might be wrong!—is that forward guidance isn't supposed to affect interest rates gradually. It's supposed to have an immediate impact, so it should be soon enough to comment on this. Anyone?

Friday Cat Blogging - 14 December 2012

| Fri Dec. 14, 2012 12:58 PM PST

Domino climbed into this box the other day, and Marian thought it would be funny to put up a pair of mice to keep an eye on her. I'm not sure Domino ever noticed, though. Perhaps we should have rolled them in catnip first.

Quote of the Day: Obama's Non-Answer Answer About Pot

| Fri Dec. 14, 2012 12:02 PM PST

From President Barack Obama, on enforcing federal drug laws in Colorado and Washington, where voters have made marijuana use legal:

We've got bigger fish to fry....It would not make sense for us to see a top priority as going after recreational users in states that have determined that it's legal.

For what it's worth, I don't think anyone should take this as meaningful. The federal government doesn't "go after" recreational users right now, and no one thinks they're going to start. But they do go after growers and distributors of pot, and Obama said nothing at all about that. This is basically a non-response and probably shouldn't be taken as an indication of what federal policy is likely to be going forward.

Zero Dark Thirty: An Update

| Fri Dec. 14, 2012 10:51 AM PST

I still haven't seen Zero Dark Thirty, so I should probably continue to maintain a discreet silence on the question of whether it suggests that CIA torture of al-Qaeda prisoners provided one of the clues that led to the killing of Osama bin Laden. Still, Andrew Sullivan, whatever else you can say about him, has been about as rock solid an opponent of torture as you can imagine, and he knows the background of the CIA program backward and forward. So it's worth listening to his conclusion after seeing the movie:

Why include the torture at all? It played no role in finding any clues as to the whereabouts of bin Laden in the movie and in reality. The breakthroughs in the movie come from traditional interrogation and intelligence. In only one instance is torture even remotely connected to a real clue. That's when a previously tortured suspect — driven to near insanity and oblivion by sleep deprivation — is tricked into believing he had already revealed something when he hadn't. That's classic good interrogation: bluffing. Yes, the suspect was more easily coaxed because the premise of the bluff is that he cannot remember what he may or may not have said because of torture. But the trick could have worked in other circumstances. And he gives up information while being outside the torture rooms, and offered food and drink in a restaurant.

....It may be that many people watching this movie will actually believe the torture was integral to the end-result. But that will be because they want to see that or because they are as dumb as Owen Gleiberman. It isn't there. And if they want to see that, they will also be forced, at least, to own the barbarism depicted on screen in a way that euphemisms like "sleep deprivation", "stress positions" and "enhanced interrogation" were designed to obscure.

I'll keep this brief because, as I said, I haven't seen the movie yet. I take Sullivan's judgment seriously because of his long years keeping up the fight against torture. But there's a danger that the movie is acting as something of a Rorschach test. Sullivan is appalled by torture, so he's convinced that seeing it on the big screen will horrify viewers, who won't really connect it with the tidbit of information later revealed in the restaurant. But that may just be projection. Yes, grisly scenes will be grisly no matter what, but a lot of viewers who aren't especially appalled by torture might not be as horrified as Sullivan, and might very well connect it to the tidbit from the restaurant. To Sullivan, "more easily coaxed" might seem like a trivial thing, but there's no certainty that other viewers will see it the same way.

That's it for now. If I see the movie next week I'll have more to say then.

Bobby Jindal's Smart Play on Contraceptives

| Fri Dec. 14, 2012 10:19 AM PST

Today brings some evidence that Bobby Jindal is a smart guy. In the Wall Street Journal, he writes that contraceptives should be available over the counter:

Let's ask the question: Why do women have to go see a doctor before they buy birth control? There are two answers. First, because big government says they should, even though requiring a doctor visit to get a drug that research shows is safe helps drive up health-care costs. Second, because big pharmaceutical companies benefit from it. They know that prices would be driven down if the companies had to compete in the marketplace once their contraceptives were sold over the counter.

Jindal knows his audience. All he's saying here is that prescriptions are required by the FDA, but if you're talking to conservatives it's better to refer to this as "big government." And I guess a bit of Big Pharma bashing does no harm even in the pages of the Journal.

But however you phrase it, Jindal is basically right. There's plenty of evidence that oral contraceptives are safe enough to be sold over-the-counter. But why associate himself with this quixotic notion? What's in it for Jindal?

As a conservative Republican, I believe that we have been stupid to let the Democrats demagogue the contraceptives issue and pretend, during debates about health-care insurance, that Republicans are somehow against birth control. It's a disingenuous political argument they make.

....Contraception is a personal matter—the government shouldn't be in the business of banning it or requiring a woman's employer to keep tabs on her use of it. If an insurance company or those purchasing insurance want to cover birth control, they should be free to do so. If a consumer wants to buy birth control on her own, she should be free to do so.

Jindal understands that, like it or not, Democrats were quite successful at demagoguing Republicans this year over their opposition to the contraception mandate. And yet, the Republican base is still dead set against the idea that "religious institutions" should be required to pay for contraceptives for their employees. How to square this circle?

Easy: if contraceptives are sold over the counter, then the issue disappears. Insurance doesn't usually cover non-prescription drugs, which means the mandate goes away. No employer-provided insurance plan will have to cover contraceptives, so the whole fight over religious objections evaporates.

What's more, smart liberals would probably support this idea too, for several reasons. First, the evidence suggests that oral contraceptives are safe enough to be sold OTC. So it's good public policy in general. Second, the cost of contraceptives would almost certainly drop substantially if this happened. They're cheap to manufacture, after all. Third, all things considered, OTC availability would probably make contraceptives more available and more widely used than prescription contraceptives subsidized by insurance companies.

This is why I said Jindal is smart. He's picked an issue that has good scientific backing, offers a strong chance of bipartisan support, and eliminates an emotional fight that conservatives are losing. It also gives him some street cred as a guy who wants to turn down the temperature on the culture wars. Not bad.

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Why Did Obama Give Republicans a Scalp?

| Fri Dec. 14, 2012 9:20 AM PST

Andrew Sprung comments on Susan Rice's withdrawal from consideration as secretary of state:

When I saw the news, my own mind jumped to a conclusion simultaneous with processing it: shit, Obama caved. I consider that a significant data point, not because I'm particularly knowledgeable about this process or about Rice, but because I'm not. I think anyone who followed the course of this prospective nomination even casually would have leaped to the same conclusion. And those optics suggest a major White House failure, whatever the merits of Rice as Secretary of State.

Moreover, I think we do know enough to lament the way this affair was handled....[Rice's] claim that a "long, grueling confirmation battle" would have distracted from struggles to enact key legislation reinforces the perception that Obama is unwilling to confront determined opposition. Her assertion, "The position of Secretary of State should never be politicized" highlights the fact that her enemies successfully politicized it.

Why was this appalling affair handled the way it was? As Andrew suggests later, why not just nominate John Kerry for secretary of state and say he was the top choice all along? And why let this process drag out so publicly for over a month?

I suppose the likeliest explanation is that, yes, it was just badly handled. But there's another possibility: Obama (a) wanted to give Rice every possible chance, and (b) wanted to make it crystal clear that Republican intransigence had killed the nomination. The latter has a couple of benefits. First, it's probably good PR for Team Obama. Second, it means that Senate Republicans have a scalp. The informal rules of Washington DC culture allow the opposition party to reject one or two nominees (John Tower, Zoë Baird, Tom Daschle) but then confirm the rest. By making Rice their scalp, it probably makes Obama's future nomination fights easier.

For the Last Time, the Social Security Trust Fund Is Real

| Fri Dec. 14, 2012 4:13 AM PST

Does Social Security contribute to the deficit? Is the Social Security trust fund a fiction? I've taken a crack at explaining both of these things before, but I've never really succeeded. The truth is that it's complicated. So today I'm going to try again. I figure I'm bound to hit on a formulation that makes sense eventually.

First things first: Social Security is funded via a payroll tax on all income up to $110,000. You pay 6.2 percent and your employer pays 6.2 percent. These numbers were set by the Social Security Reform Act of 1983, and for the next three decades payroll taxes provided more money than was needed to pay out benefits to retirees.

Now, suppose this surplus had been invested in corporate bonds. What exactly would that mean? It means that workers would be giving money to corporations, who would turn around and spend it. In return, the Social Security trust fund would receive bonds that represent promises to repay the money later out of the company's cash flow. In effect, it gives workers a claim on the cash flows of the company at a later date in time. When that time comes, the company would have to pay up, which would make it less profitable. If the company was already unprofitable, it would make their deficit even worse.

If that's what had happened, there would be no confusion about the trust fund. Everyone agrees that corporate bonds are real things, and that the corporations who sell them have an obligation to pay them back, even though it means less money for shareholder dividends.

Now let's change a few words in this story. What actually happened is that the Social Security surplus was invested in treasury bonds. What does that mean? It means that workers gave money to the federal government, which turned around and spent it. In return, the Social Security trust fund received bonds that represented promises to repay the money later out of the federal government's income tax receipts. In effect, it gave workers a claim on the income tax receipts of the government at a later date in time. When that time came, the federal government would have to pay up, which would make it less profitable. If the government was already running a deficit, it would make the deficit even worse.

These two stories are identical. Treasury bonds are real things: They are promises to repay money at a later date out of the government's cash flow. The federal government has an obligation to pay them back even if it has to raise income taxes to do it.

That's where we are today. Payroll taxes are no longer enough to cover payments to retirees, so Social Security is cashing in the treasury bonds in its trust fund to make up the difference. Those bonds, which were purchased with the payroll taxes of workers, represent a promise of repayment from the income taxpayers of America, and that promise is every bit as real as a promise from the board of directors of a corporation. But the money is real too, which means that paying it back makes the federal deficit even worse than it already is. To cover that deficit, our only options are to either (a) raise income taxes or (b) sell new bonds to outsiders, thus increasing the net public debt.

So: Does Social Security contribute to the deficit? Yes. Is the Social Security trust fund a fiction? No. Does everything make sense now?

UPDATE: Technically, it's not correct that Social Security is cashing in treasury bonds. Not yet, anyway. The trust fund earns interest on its existing stock of bonds, and right now it's taking part of its interest payments in cash (rather than more bonds) in order to make up the shortfall from payroll taxes. These interest payments are paid out of the general fund and thus affect the deficit. Within a few years, interest payments will no longer be enough to cover the shortfall and Social Security will start redeeming the treasury bonds in its trust fund.

Susan Rice Bows Out

| Thu Dec. 13, 2012 3:34 PM PST

Susan Rice is now the latest victim of the baying hyenas in the modern Republican Party:

U.N. Ambassador Susan Rice withdrew her name from the list of candidates for secretary of state Thursday afternoon, ending a weeks-long fight with Republicans over statements she made on television talk shows shortly after the attack that killed four Americans in Benghazi, Libya, on Sept. 11.

In a letter to President Obama, Rice said: “I respectfully request that you no longer consider my candidacy at this time. The position of Secretary of State should never be politicized....I am saddened that we have reached this point, even before you have decided whom to nominate. We cannot afford such an irresponsible distraction from the most pressing issues facing the American people.”

I don't hold any special brief for Rice. She might or might not have made a good secretary of state. But the fact that she was made into a scapegoat for the GOP's disgraceful attempt to manufacture a scandal out of Benghazi is chilling. This whole episode has been shameful.

The Great Political Mystery of Social Security Reform

| Thu Dec. 13, 2012 1:12 PM PST

Here's a brief little bit of musing about Social Security that occurs to me once in a while. It's a question for conservatives: what do you think will happen if we don't agree to some kind of deal to make Social Security solvent?

Let's game this out. Right now, the trustees say the trust fund will run dry in 2033. Let's stipulate this for the sake of discussion. At that point, benefits will be cut 25 percent because payroll taxes alone won't be enough to cover current benefit levels.

So imagine it's 2033. The head of Social Security calls a press conference and announces that in July the trust fund will be depleted and benefits will be immediately cut. What happens next? The answer is pretty obvious, isn't it? With tens of millions of seniors facing a whopping cut in their monthly checks, Congress will go into crisis mode and restore benefits. Period. There will be no cuts at all.

Does anyone seriously doubt this? I simply can't imagine any other outcome.

Given this, conservatives have two choices. First, make a deal now that includes some benefit cuts and some tax hikes. Second, refuse to agree to any tax hikes and therefore scuttle any deal. Then, in 2033, like it or not, you'll get a deal that includes no benefit cuts and enough tax hikes to finance Social Security just the way it is.

So why are liberals generally willing to cut a deal, even though they could just wait it out and not give up anything? And why are conservatives dead set against it, even though the lack of a deal will eventually spur tax hikes much larger than what they could agree to today? It's sort of a mystery, isn't it?

POSTSCRIPT: I am, of course, one of those liberals who's in favor of a deal. Why? Because I think it's worthwhile for young people to have faith that Social Security will be there for them when they retire. I think it's generally good for the liberal project when the electorate believes that liberal programs are sustainable and well run. That's why I'm willing to make a deal even though I probably don't really have to.