Kevin Drum - December 2012

Republicans Continue to Stare Into the Abyss, But Nothing Stares Back

| Fri Dec. 28, 2012 11:06 AM EST

The absurdities of the fiscal cliff continue apace. Here is Mitch McConnell, master of the absurd:

“Nothing can move forward in regards to our budget crisis unless Speaker Boehner and Leader McConnell are willing to participate in coming up with a bipartisan plan,” Reid said. “So far, they are radio-silent.”

McConnell retorted that Republicans have been eager to work with Obama. After one-on-one talks between Obama and Boehner failed to produce a broad deficit-reduction package last week, McConnell said it is now the president’s responsibility to put forward a new plan. “Republicans bent over backwards,” he said. “We wanted an agreement. But we had no takers. The phone never rang.”

....Boehner’s message was that “we were going to wait for the Senate to take up the bill that we passed six months ago,” said one Republican lawmaker who was on the call. “Quit trying to do this leadership-negotiating thing.”

Republicans bent over backwards! Boehner apparently did his bending over by never once proposing a detailed plan and never once being willing to publicly tell us what spending cuts he wanted. Then he failed to get passage of even a PR stunt and simply gave up. McConnell, for his part, did his bending over backwards by retreating to his office and never once poking his head out for four consecutive weeks.

But maybe "one Republican lawmaker" has the right idea. Why bother negotiating with McConnell, who so far has shown no inclination to want responsibility for anything? Maybe Obama and Reid should simply come up with a modestly different package than the most recent Democratic proposal and see if they can round up seven Republican votes for it. The Maine twins might vote for it. Lugar's retiring, so he might vote for it. Murkowski could maybe be bought off. Scott Brown wants some centrist cred for his next Senate run, so he might vote for it. Maybe a bit of old-fashioned horsetrading could put together 60 votes.

(Needless to say, 60 votes will be necessary, since Mitch McConnell certainly won't forego a filibuster of anything that Obama proposes. He's not willing to bend that far backward.)

After that, who knows? Maybe a bill with no fingerprints on it from the GOP leadership could pick up a couple dozen Republican votes in the House if Boehner allows it to come to the floor, as he's promised. You never know.

It's a long shot. But I wonder if it's any more of a long shot than continuing to engage with Boehner and McConnell, both of whom are obviously scared to death of doing anything other than simply rejecting every proposal Obama puts forward and then accusing Obama of "not being serious"?

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How Technical Sounding Nonsense Can Boost Your Career Prospects

| Thu Dec. 27, 2012 10:07 PM EST

Is a research paper in the social sciences more impressive if it contains some impenetrable math? Kimmo Eriksson, who made a mid-career move from pure mathematics to cultural evolution and social psychology, had a hunch that it might. So he did a test. He recruited a bunch of volunteers with either masters degrees or PhDs to read abstracts of two actual papers that had been previously published. Half the group got the original abstract, while the other half got the abstract with this sentence added:

So what did he find? Reviewers were asked to rate the quality of the research on a scale of 1-100, and it turned out that when the reviewer had a degree in a tech-related area, the addition of the nonsense equation had no effect. In fact, it reduced their rating of the abstract slightly. But if the reviewer's degree was in the humanities, social sciences, medicine, or education, the added math raised their rating of the abstract significantly. Eriksson comments:

The experimental results suggest a bias for nonsense math in judgments of quality of research. Further, this bias was only found among people with degrees from areas outside mathematics, science and technology. Presumably lack of mathematical skills renders difficult own critical evaluation of meaningless mathematics....It may also be that people always tend to become impressed by what they do not understand, irrespective of what field it represents—much in line with the "Guru effect" discussed by Sperber (2010). The scope of the phenomenon is a question for future research.

The chart on the right shows how participants rated the abstracts with the added math compared to the original mathless abstract. The full paper is here.

The Big Debate: Should We Raise Taxes on the Rich or the Poor?

| Thu Dec. 27, 2012 3:25 PM EST

Ezra Klein has said this before, and I'm pretty sure I've said it before too—possibly by linking to Ezra saying it—but it bears repeating: Both Democrats and Republicans want to raise taxes on certain people. The main difference is which people they want to raise taxes on:

Democrats do want to raise taxes on families making more than $250,000. You sometimes hear Democrats say they just want to "restore the Clinton-era rates" for these folks, but that's misleading. In addition to letting the Bush tax cuts expire, the White House wants to add about $700 billion in further tax increases on these taxpayers. And that's in addition to the high-income taxes passed in the health-care law. Under Obama's plan, taxes on the richest Americans would be much higher than under the Clinton tax code.

So yes, Democrats want to raise some taxes. But so do Republicans. They want to let the payroll tax cut and the various stimulus tax credits (notably the expansion of the Earned Income Tax Credit and the Child Tax Credit) expire. Those are the tax cuts that primarily help poor and middle-class Americans. In fact, 87.8 percent of the payroll tax cut's benefits go to taxpayers making less than $200,000 and 99.9 percent of the stimulus tax credits' benefits go to taxpayers making less than $200,000.

But you want numbers, don't you? How much do Democrats want to raise taxes on the rich? How much do Republicans want to raise taxes on the poor? This is a little tricky, since the healthcare taxes Ezra mentions are a done deal. They really shouldn't be counted as part of the fiscal cliff negotiations at all. What's more, I don't have numbers for the entirety of Obama's most recent proposal. However, the Tax Policy Center gives us a good rundown of the major points of contention in the chart below, which I've compressed and annotated. Bottom line: allowing the payroll tax cuts and the stimulus tax cuts to expire will raise taxes on the poorest Americans by nearly 3 points. Allowing the high-end Bush tax cuts to expire will raise taxes on the richest Americans by nearly 4 points. Take your pick.

The Whole Six Yards

| Thu Dec. 27, 2012 12:47 PM EST

Have you always wondered where the phrase "the whole nine yards" comes from? You're not alone. "For decades," says Jennifer Schuessler of the New York Times, "the answer to that question has been the Bigfoot of word origins."

And that's true. Back before I knew this was a controversy, I simply assumed the phrase derived from the game of football. Why? Because I had always heard it used a bit sarcastically, suggesting that if you gave something "the whole nine yards," you weren't really putting in enough effort to get the job done. This naturally suggested a football origin.

That's wrong, it turns out, but no one really knows the actual origin of the phrase. Until now! Recent research suggests that the meaning of "nine yards" is....nothing. It's just "numerical phrase inflation." Click the link for the whole deflating story.

Quote of the Day: The Problem With Economics

| Thu Dec. 27, 2012 12:18 PM EST

From Matt Yglesias, talking about the current state of macroeconomic theorizing:

It's far too easy for people with the relevant skills to demonstrate just about anything.

Technically, of course, this is true of just about any field. I've seen plenty of sophisticated debunkings of Einstein's theory of relativity, for example. Luckily, it turns out that physics is a fairly simple field, which makes it possible for the physics community to gather enough empirical data to keep the cranks safely at bay. If your GPS device gets you safely home, then the theory of relativity can't be too wrong, after all.

At the same time, climate science is only moderately more complex than relativistic mechanics, and its standing in the relevant scientific community is very nearly as strong. What's more, there's a ton of empirical data suggesting that the globe is indeed warming dangerously. But that hasn't done it much good. In the end, it turns out that the reason the theory of relativity is widely accepted in the outside world has very little to do with how strongly the physics community believes it. It has to do with the fact that, unlike climate science, it doesn't gore any powerful oxes. (Oxen?)

Sadly, macroeconomics combines the worst aspects of just about everything. It's wildly complex. Its fundamental precepts change over time as the basis of the economy changes. Reliable experimental evidence is practically impossible to come by. Even the effect of fairly simple changes to basic quantities—hell, even the direction of the effect—is often contested. And of course, it's a field that gores just about every ox in existence. So there's always a ready audience for any result, no matter how strained an interpretation of reality it takes to get it.

The part I can't figure out is why there's so much contention even within the field. In physics and climate science, the cranks are almost all nonspecialists with an axe to grind. Actual practitioners agree pretty broadly on at least the basics. But in macroeconomics you don't have that. There are still polar disagreements among top names on some of the most basic questions. Even given the complexity of the field, that's a bit of a mystery. It's understandable that economics is a more politicized field than physics, but in practice it seems to be almost 100 percent politicized, with the battles fought out by streams of Greek letters demonstrating, as Matt says, just about anything. I wonder if this is ever likely to change? Or will changes in the real world always outpace our ability to build consensus on how the economy actually works?

A Question From the Staff of the Mother Jones Irvine Bowl

| Thu Dec. 27, 2012 11:36 AM EST

Browsing through the sports section this morning, I came across this sentence:

UCLA brings plenty of offense to the Bridgepoint Education Holiday Bowl on Thursday night in San Diego....

I've been wondering for a while how it is that newspapers got bullied into using the full, sponsored names for bowl games. I understand why TV announcers do it: I assume they're contractually obligated to use the sponsor's name. But what's everyone else's excuse? Why not just call it the Holiday Bowl and let the TV guys do all the water carrying for the corporate sponsors? Ditto for every other bowl that actually has a name. Does anyone know how and when this entered the stylebooks of our nation's print media?

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Republicans Now 100 Percent AWOL From Fiscal Cliff Talks

| Thu Dec. 27, 2012 10:49 AM EST

John Boehner gave up on fiscal cliff negotiations after he was unable to get House Republicans to agree to any proposal at all, even one that he himself had crafted. The fate of the Republic, he said, was now in the Senate's hands. So how is Mitch McConnell handling things?

An aide said Wednesday that McConnell had not been in contact with any top Democrats, including Sen. Harry Reid (D-Nev.), the majority leader, during the holiday break....Always cautious, McConnell has kept a decidedly low profile during the last few weeks of political theater in the Capitol....Behind the scenes, he [] helped devise Boehner's Plan B maneuver, which failed to gain enough Republican votes to be brought up in the House. In the aftermath of that defeat, however, McConnell may be unwilling to take on the job of deal-maker. The reasons reflect the pressures that have buffeted his fellow Republicans.

"I cannot emphasize how little a constructive role he will play in this," Democratic strategist Jim Manley, a former top Reid aide, said of McConnell. "He's going to be very reluctant to get involved, and to the extent he does get involved, he's going to move very slowly."

No Republican dares to be associated with a tax increase, including McConnell. Grover Norquist and his blood pledge still control them all. Will this change after January 1, when the conversation is no longer about raising taxes, but about lowering them? That would make sense, but sense is in short supply these days in the GOP caucus. Here's the best quote in the entire story:

"The president made a strategic miscalculation and overreached," said one GOP aide granted anonymity to discuss party strategy. "He could have worked to reach a fair agreement, but instead he picked a fight, poisoned the well, and now we are likely to have a rather unproductive next four years. The decision he made only hurts himself."

The president overreached! He spent an entire year campaigning on letting tax rates go up modestly on the rich, and then, after winning a convincing victory in November he insisted on....letting tax rates go up modestly on the rich. In GOP-land, that constitutes "poisoning the well," and it will now become the official excuse for another four years of bitter obstruction and spittle-flecked conspiracy theories. The whole process took less than two months from start to finish. Happy New Year, everyone.

The Great Republican Recession of 2013 is Now Five Days Away

| Wed Dec. 26, 2012 6:59 PM EST

After the failure of his fiscal cliff negotiations with the White House, followed by his humiliating inability to get even his ridiculous "Plan B" proposal approved by House Republicans, John Boehner gave up and punted the whole thing over to the president and the Senate. Why? Matt Yglesias says Boehner likes the idea because the only way to get anything through the Senate is to compromise with Republicans, which will produce a deal to the right of Obama's current proposal. "Then once something like that difference-splitting bill passes the Senate, Boehner gets to take it up as the new baseline for negotiations and pull the ultimate resolution even further to the right."

True enough. But I doubt this was Boehner's intent from the beginning. Remember that during the debt limit talks last year, Boehner initially handed off negotiating duties to Eric Cantor, hoping that if Cantor signed off on a deal it would get the rest of the tea party caucus to throw in their votes as well. But Cantor double-crossed him after a few weeks, pulling out of the talks and pushing them back in Boehner's lap so that Boehner would have to take the heat for agreeing to any tax increases. But even at that, Boehner didn't give up: he tried to keep negotiating until it became clear that the Cantorites just flatly wouldn't approve any feasible deal. Eventually a deal got done after Mitch McConnell got involved.

We're seeing the same dynamic this time around: Boehner trying to negotiate, but eventually giving up after it became clear that the Cantorites wouldn't agree to any feasible kind of deal. So now he's going back to the debt limit playbook, and hoping that maybe a deal that comes with the imprimatur of Senate Republicans will also get enough Republican votes in the House to pass. Besides, if a deal passes the Senate, that gives him an excuse to bring it to the floor even if it doesn't have the votes of a majority of the Republican caucus.

Now, it's true that Mitch McConnell will almost certainly want to take Obama's most recent proposal and use that as a starting point to move even further rightward:

But that's exactly why Obama would be foolish to take any such thing seriously. Starting in the New Year, the Senate gets more liberal. The House also gets more liberal. And the policy baseline also gets more liberal. The White House isn't going to pull the plug on negotiations, but unless Boehner comes back to the table with something new to say they have no incentive to further weaken their hand.

Yep. However, for PR reasons, Obama has to remain the adult in the room at all times, continuing to negotiate honestly even in the face of seemingly relentless intransigence. No ultimatums, no walking out of talks. But on January 1, taxes on the middle class go up and the economy slowly begins to slide into the great Republican Recession of 2013. That's the leverage that will finally force GOP leaders to get serious. Obama will never say so publicly, but I imagine he knows this perfectly well.

A Wee Comparison of Civil Liberties in the United States of America

| Wed Dec. 26, 2012 3:12 PM EST

Compare and contrast. Here is how seriously we take civil liberties when the subject can be plausibly labeled terrorism:

[New rules] allow the little-known National Counterterrorism Center to examine the government files of U.S. citizens for possible criminal behavior, even if there is no reason to suspect them. That is a departure from past practice, which barred the agency from storing information about ordinary Americans unless a person was a terror suspect or related to an investigation.

Now, NCTC can copy entire government databases—flight records, casino-employee lists, the names of Americans hosting foreign-exchange students and many others. The agency has new authority to keep data about innocent U.S. citizens for up to five years, and to analyze it for suspicious patterns of behavior. Previously, both were prohibited.

And here is how seriously we take civil liberties when gun ownership is involved in any way, shape, or form:

Under current laws the bureau is prohibited from creating a federal registry of gun transactions....When law enforcement officers recover a gun and serial number, workers at the bureau’s National Tracing Center here — a windowless warehouse-style building on a narrow road outside town — begin making their way through a series of phone calls, asking first the manufacturer, then the wholesaler and finally the dealer to search their files to identify the buyer of the firearm.

....The Firearm Owners Protection Act of 1986, for example, prohibits A.T.F. agents from making more than one unannounced inspection per year of licensed gun dealers. The law also reduced the falsification of records by dealers to a misdemeanor....The most recent Tiahrt amendment, adopted in 2010...requires that records of background checks of gun buyers be destroyed within 24 hours of approval. Advocates of tighter regulation say this makes it harder to identify dealers who falsify records or buyers who make “straw” purchases for others.

So that's where we are. The federal government can swoop up enormous databases, keep them for years, and data mine them to its heart's content if it has even the slightest suspicion of terrorist activity. Objections? None to speak of, despite the fact that terrorism claims only a handful of American lives per year. But information related to guns? That couldn't be more different. Background checks are destroyed within 24 hours, serial numbers of firearms aren't kept in a central database at all, and gun dealers can barely even be monitored. All this despite the fact that we record more than 10,000 gun-related homicides every year.

Compare and contrast.

Artificial Intelligence is the Key to Future Growth — Or Stagnation

| Wed Dec. 26, 2012 12:59 PM EST

A few days ago Tyler Cowen pointed me to an op-ed by Robert Gordon suggesting that future economic growth will be fairly sluggish. Gordon points out, correctly, that the strong growth of the 20th century was based on two key inventions, electrification and the internal combustion engine, and the thousands of innovations that followed on from those. The computer revolution of the late 20th century just hasn't produced as much innovation, and thus hasn't powered as much growth.

Fair enough, as far as it goes. But what about the future? Here's the nutshell version of Gordon's op-ed:

The first response from skeptics always involves health care....[But] pharmaceutical research appears to be entering a phase of diminishing returns....The fracking revolution and soaring oil and gas production have also excited optimists. But this isn't a source of future economic growth....Another claim by the growth optimists is that 3-D printing and micro-robots will revolutionize manufacturing....Can economic growth be saved by Google's driverless car? This is bizarre ground for optimism, but it is promoted not just by Google's Eric Schmidt but by the Massachusetts Institute of Technology's Erik Brynjolfsson.

This is very strange. Gordon may be right about all these things, but he rather conspicuously left out the most important future innovation of all: artificial intelligence. You simply can't write about the future of innovation without talking about that. At the very least, you need to acknowledge it, and then explain why you think it will never happen, or why it won't produce a lot of future growth even if it does. But you can't just ignore it and then say there are no grounds for being optimistic about future growth. It would be like writing about the future of sports in 1960 and not bothering to address the possibility that television might have an impact on things.

There are lots of things that might change the future in big ways. Genome sequencing might eventually revolutionize healthcare. Cheap fusion power might revolutionize the energy industry. But as big as those things might be if they come to pass, there's only one near-future invention that has the potential to rival electrification as a source of innovation: artificial intelligence. If you talk about the future without talking about artificial intelligence, you're simply not taking the topic seriously. Gordon does us all a disservice by pretending that it doesn't exist.