Kevin Drum - December 2012

Bob Corker Doesn't Really Matter

| Mon Dec. 10, 2012 2:56 PM EST

Republican senator Bob Corker says he'd be OK with raising taxes. Hallelujah! Except that he's said this before. It's nothing new. Dave Weigel is tired of this game:

When I carp about Meet the Pressistan, this is what I'm talking about — a mobius strip conversation among the same handful of people, giving the illusion that a broader conversation must also be moving the same way. For two weeks, Tom Cole has been on the record for raising the top rate. Tom Coburn has been talking this way for two years. When will somebody sit down the Sunday show bookers and tell them that the votes of reluctant House members, very vulnerable to primaries, matter more than whatever a compromise-friendly Republican senator is re-re-re-re-stating?

It's possible that Republicans really are starting to give way on taxes. And it's noteworthy that someone like Corker is making his position more public and more pointed than in the past. Still, Weigel is right. There have always been a small handful of Republicans willing to compromise on taxes. The fact that they're still willing to compromise really isn't news. Whether the tea party caucus in the House is willing to swallow tax increases—and whether John Boehner can make a deal without them if he needs to—are the only real questions at issue right now.

(That's on the Republican side, of course. Another real question is whether Obama can get Democrats to go along with a deal that cuts entitlement spending. Probably he can, but it's no sure thing.)

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Lying About Torture, Hollywood Style

| Mon Dec. 10, 2012 1:35 PM EST

UPDATE: Spencer Ackerman provides some additional context about the torture scenes in Zero Dark Thirty and says, "Bigelow is being presented as a torture apologist, and it’s a bum rap." After I wrote this post, several people warned me not to jump to conclusions until I'd seen the movie. It sounds like I probably should have listened.


Zero Dark Thirty, Kathryn Bigelow's film about the killing of Osama bin Laden, has gotten almost unanimously rave reviews. However, it turns out that the movie claims, in gruesomely dramatic fashion, that CIA-approved torture of captured al-Qaeda operatives provided the information that allowed us to find bin Laden in the first place. Glenn Greenwald is properly appalled:

The claim that waterboarding and other torture techniques were necessary in finding bin Laden was first made earlier this year by Jose Rodriguez, the CIA agent who illegally destroyed the agency's torture tapes, got protected from prosecution by the DOJ, and then profited off this behavior by writing a book. He made the same claim as "Zero Dark Thirty" regarding the role played by torture in finding bin Laden.

That caused two Senators who are steadfast loyalists of the CIA — Senate Intelligence Committee Chair Dianne Feinstein and Armed Services Committee Chair Carl Levin — to issue statements definitively debunking this assertion. Even the CIA's then-Director, Leon Panetta, made clear that those techniques played no role in finding bin Laden. An FBI agent central to the bin Laden hunt said the same.

What this film does, then, is uncritically present as fact the highly self-serving, and factually false, claims by the CIA that its torture techniques were crucial in finding bin Laden. Put another way, it propagandizes the public to favorably view clear war crimes by the US government, based on pure falsehoods.

....If Bigelow had merely depicted episodes that actually happened, then her defense that she is not judging and has no responsibility to do so would be more debatable. But the fact that she's presenting lies as fact on an issue as vital as these war crimes, all while patting herself on the back for her "journalistic approach" to the topic, makes the behavior indefensible, even reprehensible. Is it really possible to say: this is a great film despite the fact that it glorifies torture using patent falsehoods?

Unfortunately, yes, it probably is possible to say this. Just ask Richard III. But that doesn't make it any less disgusting. Adam Serwer runs down the actual truth here.

The "6-Year Itch" Might Finally Die in 2014

| Mon Dec. 10, 2012 12:21 PM EST

Via Andrew Sullivan, I see that Charlie Cook is predicting bad news for Democrats:

The 2014 vote is what’s known as a "six-year itch" election, with the party holding the White House usually losing a substantial number of House and Senate seats in the sixth year of its tenure. There are a variety of reasons, but at that midway point in a party's second four years in the White House, the "in" party tends to lose energy and focus. Party leaders run out of ideas, and the "first team" in terms of personnel—the people who were there when the president took office—have often bailed out, and the second or third team is sometimes not as good. Voters tend to grow weary and to look for something different.

This is a funny thing. In 2004, the Washington Monthly ran a feature called "What If Bush Wins?" and my contribution was similar to Cook's: presidential administrations often get bogged down in scandals in their sixth year, and I figured Bush would be no exception. And as things turned out, he wasn't. A combination of Jack Abramoff, Valerie Plame, and several smaller affairs turned 2006 into a wave election for Democrats, who regained control of both the House and Senate.

I don't really see that happening to Obama. Republicans have done their damnedest to make scandals out of Fast & Furious, Solyndra, and Benghazi, but there's been nothing there. They're just run-of-the-mill mistakes, and not even especially big ones. Whatever else you can say about him, Obama seems to run an unusually tight ship out of the Oval Office. (It's telling that he managed to spend $500 billion in stimulus money with an almost total lack of even petty scandals.)

So this leaves the more general argument that Cook makes: the in-party just generally gets tired and loses focus, leaving voters eager for a change. And I suppose it would be foolish to expect Obama to break out of that straitjacket.

And yet....things really do feel different right now. I'm not even sure I can quite verbalize how they feel different, but I guess it's a combination of things. First, the demographic trends that helped Democrats in 2012 will still be a big headwind working against Republicans in 2014. Second, it seems likely that the GOP is going to continue its strategy of maximal obstruction in Congress, and that's going to wear very, very thin. Third, as Marco Rubio and Bobby Jindal have demonstrated rather pointedly recently, Republicans are the ones who seem tired and out of ideas right now. They're still partying like it's 1979 and the answer to every problem is tax cuts for the rich, deregulation for big corporations, and spending cuts for the poor and the middle class. Fourth, if Republicans continue to fight the same fights they're fighting now—slashing Medicare, shutting down the government—Obama is very likely going to come out the winner. He's simply got the more popular side of those arguments.

It would be foolish to predict Democratic gains in 2014. Cook is right that there are plenty of reasons to think that's not going to happen. And yet, I'm just not sure. I usually pay heed to long-term historical trends when it comes to stuff like this, but unless Republicans do something genuine to react to their 2012 losses, I'm not sure they can count on generic exhaustion with Democrats to sweep them to victory in 2014. They need to up their game.

No, We Will Never Again See Clinton-Era Spending Levels

| Mon Dec. 10, 2012 11:47 AM EST

Peter Suderman thinks that if liberals are nostalgic for Clinton-era tax rates, maybe we should be nostalgic for Clinton-era spending rates as well:

Why should we limit ourselves to just replicating one tiny fragment of Clinton-era governance—higher tax rates on a fairly small number of earners? Why not replicate other aspects of Clinton’s policy mix as well? Probably because that would entail mentioning something that Obama’s frequent invocations of the Clinton years always ignore: that Clinton’s spending levels were far, far lower than they have been for the last four years—or than President Obama has called for them to be in the years to come.

That's true! Unfortunately, Peter mostly uses nominal spending figures for his comparison, which doesn't make much sense. But he also points out that on a measure that does make sense—federal spending as a percent of GDP—Clinton ended his second term at about 18 percent, while Obama is currently spending 24 percent of GDP.

A good deal of that is because GDP peaked in 2000 thanks to the dotcom boom, while GDP is artificially low right now thanks to a weak recovery from the financial collapse. Spending as a percent of GDP always rises during recessions and then slowly declines during expansions. Still, Peter points out that even Obama's future budgets envision spending at 21 percent of GDP. What's up with that?

Answer: we're getting older! That's it. We're never going back to the halcyon days of federal spending at its historical average of 19-20 percent of GDP. America is aging, which all by itself boosts spending over the next couple of decades to about 22 percent of GDP. Rising healthcare costs add another point or two to that. Even if we're really frugal in every other area, there's just no way we'll be spending much less than 23-24 percent of GDP in 2030.

Everyone really needs to understand this. We don't suffer from runaway spending. It's true, as Peter points out, that we could spend less on defense. There are domestic programs that could be cut too. Ethanol subsidies pop immediately to mind. Overall, though, discretionary spending has been flat for many years, and it's projected to decline in the future. The plain truth is that our future spending increases are all driven by two things: an aging population and rising healthcare costs. That's it. That's the story. That's why we need Clinton-era tax levels but will never, ever reach Clinton-era spending levels again. Everything else is just sound and fury, signifying nothing.

5 Things Really Worth Worrying About

| Mon Dec. 10, 2012 1:43 AM EST

From a million-foot level, what are the biggest problems we have to worry about over the next four or five decades? For no real reason, I thought I'd toss out my short list. Here it is:

  1. Climate change. Needs no explanation, I assume.
  2. Robots. Explanation here. Even Paul Krugman is tentatively on board now.
  3. Immortality. Laugh if you want, but it's hardly impossible that sometime in the medium-term future we'll see biomedical breakthroughs that make humans extremely long-lived. What happens then? Who gets the magic treatments? How do we support a population that grows forever? How does an economy of immortals work, anyway?
  4. Bioweapons. We don't talk about this a whole lot these days, but it's still possible—maybe even likely—that extraordinarily lethal viruses will be fairly easily manufacturable within a couple of decades. If this happens before we figure out how to make extraordinarily effective vaccines and antidotes, this could spell trouble in ways obvious enough to need no explanation.
  5. Energy. All the robots in the world won't do any good if we don't have enough energy to keep them running. And fossil fuels will run out eventually, fracking or not. However, I put this one fifth out of five because we already have pretty good technology for renewable energy, and it's mainly an engineering problem to build it out on a mass scale. Plus you never know. Fusion might become a reality someday.

These are the kinds of things that make the solvency of the Social Security trust fund look pretty puny. They also make it clear why it's not worth worrying too much about whether it's solvent 75 years from now. We might all be rich beyond our most fervid imaginations; we might be in the middle of massive die-offs thanks to spiraling global temperatures; or we might all be dead. Kinda hard to say.

What is the Oldest Known Idiom?

| Sun Dec. 9, 2012 5:06 PM EST

I'm reading The Fine Print, by David Cay Johnston, right now, and early in the book he shares this anecdote about the treatment of debt in the Code of Hammurabi:

If you could not repay a debt because of circumstances beyond your control, such as a hailstorm flattening a field of grain, you could be excused from your debt—this amounted to an early form of bankruptcy protection. The clay tablet that recorded your debt could be washed, giving you a "clean slate," a term we use to this day to describe unpaid debts that are forgiven.

This got me wondering: what's the oldest source for an idiom still in common use? This one comes from about 1800 BC, so it's certainly in the running. Any other candidates?

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Waiting for Boehner

| Sun Dec. 9, 2012 12:47 PM EST

There's been a tremendous amount of chatter lately about the possibility of raising the Medicare eligibility age as part of a fiscal cliff deal. Why so much chatter? As near as I can tell, it's mostly because Ezra Klein wrote a piece a few days ago suggesting that "smart folks in Washington" think it will be part of a final package. This is testimony to Ezra's immense agenda-setting power among the chattering classes, since there doesn't really appear to be any additional evidence that this is actually on the table.

That's sort of off topic, but I just thought I'd mention it. Amazing guy, that Ezra. What's on topic is Adele Stan, suggesting that maybe the worm is turning and Obama won't agree to raise the Medicare age after all:

Among the Very Serious People who sometimes admit me to their enclaves, strictly with a non-voting observer status, the talk has now turned to, well, if raising the Medicare eligibility age is off the table, then what should Obama offer Boehner in exchanges for raising the tax rates on the wealthy? After all, you gotta give the guy some cover, the reasoning goes.

Can I make a suggestion? How about if John Boehner just tells us? Is there really some reason that Obama is supposed to throw up an endless succession of trial balloons, trying to find one that will make the tea party caucus happy? If Boehner really wants to slash $600 billion from Medicare—which I frankly doubt—then let's hear from him how he wants to do it. It's his baby, after all. I, for one, would like Boehner to stop moaning about how the entire past week has been wasted and instead just tell us what he wants. The guessing game is getting old.

POSTSCRIPT: Why do I doubt that Boehner really wants to cut $600 billion from Medicare? Well, you can do that either by cutting provider payments or by cutting benefits. Obamacare has already cut provider payments by $716 billion, and I frankly doubt that Boehner or anyone else really wants to slash them very much further at this point. And cutting benefits is really unpopular. If you include current retirees, you can kiss off your next election, but if you exclude them you won't have any effect on the deficit. It's not impossible to square this circle, but it's a pretty tough nut.

The Funniest Thing I've Read All Week

| Sat Dec. 8, 2012 11:36 AM EST

From a column in the LA Times about tonight's fight between Manny Pacquiao and Juan Manuel Marquez:

The Nevada State Athletic Commission did not drug test either fighter in the lead-up to the event, saying both were veteran boxers above reproach.

Roger that. Maybe Major League Baseball should outsource its drug testing program to the Nevada State Athletic Commission.

Our Bedpan and Canasta Future

| Fri Dec. 7, 2012 4:44 PM EST

I'll confess to sometimes succumbing to fairly grim feelings about our medium-term economic future. But apparently I've got nothing on Matt Yglesias. Check this out:

I see a lot of American political discourse dominated by two equal and opposite fears. One is fear of population aging, and the consequent transformation into a society in which a larger and larger share of economic output is dedicating to taking [care] of the elderly. The other is fear of automation and the consequent transformation into a society in which nobody can find a job. [That would be me. –ed.]

These two trends are simply two sides of the same coin....What will everyone do for work when everything is automated? They'll take care of old people and sick people, because people would rather interact with human beings if possible. How will we afford all this caretaking for the elderly? Because there will be so much automation that we'll enjoy lives of material plenty even with very little human work.

Raise your hand if this sounds like a wonderful vision of the future. Anyone?

Joking aside, there's a serious point here—quite aside from the fact that the elderly of the future might very well decide that the company of lifelike, infinitely patient robots is better than that of bitter young people dragooned into playing canasta with them. The serious point is this: what do we do in the meantime?

Here's what I mean. It's quite possible that, say, 50 years from now the production of nearly all goods and services will be automated. And this might usher in a golden age of solar-powered plenty that allows us all to reach new pinnacles of human potential. Let's just stipulate this for the sake of discussion.

But what happens while we're busy getting there? Answer: the owners of capital will automate more and more, putting more and more people out of work. Liberals will continue to think that perhaps this can be solved with better education. Conservatives will continue to insist that people without jobs are lazy bums who shouldn't be coddled. The lucky owners of capital won't care. Their numbers will decline, but the ones who remain will get richer and richer. The rest of us will have no jobs, and even with all this lovely automation, our government-supplied welfare checks will be meager enough that our lives will be miserable.

This won't last forever. Eventually there will be a revolution, peaceful or otherwise, and the economic system will change. But until that happens, the next few decades are going to be mighty grim for an awful lot of people. Some of them will get $10 an hour jobs changing bedpans and pretending to enjoy the company of old people, while others won't even be suitable for that kind of work and will simply drop out of the labor force permanently.

My guess is that we started to see the first glimmerings of this around 2000 or so. It was small, and mostly masked by the housing bubble, but it was happening. Now it's accelerating, and we're going to have to deal with it one way or another. I just don't know how.

Friday Cat Blogging - 7 December 2012

| Fri Dec. 7, 2012 2:58 PM EST

I have an exciting new catblogging/quiltblogging series planned for 2013, but that's still a few weeks away. For now, you get Christmas tree blogging. To my surprise, I plonked Domino in front of the newly-decorated tree a couple of nights ago, and she actually sat there and let me take her picture for a minute or two. Perhaps she was rewarding me for buying a new brand of cat food that she obviously likes a whole lot better than the old brand. Who knows? In any case, so far the tree is intact and Domino hasn't started playing with the low-hanging ornaments yet. We'll see if that changes over the next week or so.