Kevin Drum - December 2012

What Do Republicans Want? All We Have to Do Is Listen to Them

| Thu Dec. 13, 2012 3:42 PM EST

From Atrios, here is the short version of what Republicans really want:

Yes I repeat myself. Endlessly. But this is all about enacting an elite consensus policy which involves kicking the poors and olds, funneling ever more money to Defense and Finance, and cutting taxes on rich people.

From Ezra Klein, here's the longer version:

Think back to Mitt Romney's proposed budget. Medicare and Social Security were held harmless for at least 10 years. Defense spending got a lift. PBS and the National Endowment for the Arts were on the table, but they cost so little it hardly mattered.

The only big cuts Romney ever proposed were to programs that aid the poor. He wanted to block grant -- which is to say, sharply cut -- Medicaid, food stamps, and housing assistance. He wanted to get rid of the tax cuts enacted in the stimulus to help the poor -- that's why his tax plan actually raised taxes on the poorest Americans. He wanted to repeal all the spending in Obamacare, most of which goes to lower-income Americans....Nor was Romney a major outlier on this: About two-thirds of the cuts in Rep. Paul Ryan's budget came from programs for the poor.

So Atrios's version needs a slight amendment: it's all about kicking the future olds. For all their bluster, Republicans will never propose anything that seriously affects the current elderly because that's a huge part of their base. And the current elderly won't tolerate any cuts to their Social Security or Medicare benefits.

As for Paul Ryan, his annual plans all have one thing in common. Allow me to quote myself:

Every year we get a slightly different version of the same old thing, and every year we have to waste entire man-years of analysis in order to make the same exact points about it. And the biggest point is that his budget would force enormous, swinging cuts in virtually every domestic program, especially those for the poor. If this bothers Ryan, he's had plenty of time to revise his budget roadmap to address it.

But he hasn't. He knows perfectly well that his budget concentrates its cuts on the poorest Americans. It's been pointed out hundreds of times, after all. If he found that troublesome he'd change it. Since he hasn't, the only reasonable conclusion is that this is exactly what he intends. Let's stop pretending otherwise.

Paul Ryan can talk about compassion for the poor all he wants, but his numbers don't lie. And he knows exactly what they mean. The Ryan budget would hold down taxes on the rich, keep spending on defense high, and all but eliminate spending on the poor. I'm not being partisan or argumentative about this: It's all there in black and white and Ryan does little to hide it. For some reason, though, it rarely gets reported that way.

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Quote of the Day: The A-Hole Factor

| Thu Dec. 13, 2012 2:28 PM EST

From spokeswoman Leslie Shedd, passing along what her boss, Rep. Lynn Westmoreland, said was the real reason that three tea-party conservatives were recently booted from their committee assignments:

It had to do with their inability to work with other members, which some people might refer to as the a—hole factor.

"I wouldn't have thought a-holery was against House GOP rules," snarks Ed Kilgore, "but maybe there are limits, even in that community." Apparently so.

Better Filibuster Reform, Please

| Thu Dec. 13, 2012 2:19 PM EST

Greg Sargent spoke recently with Senator Jeff Merkley, who says that filibuster reform is in trouble:

“Filibuster reform has more momentum than it has had in a generation,” Merkley said. “But it’s not a sure thing, because there are great concerns over changing the rules in an institution that rarely changes its rules. We have a few short weeks. Unless folks mobilize outside of this building and drive a message home, then reform of the filibuster may fizzle.”

The problem is not that filibuster reform won’t happen — if it came down to it, Dems would likely be able to mobilize 51 votes to pass reforms via a simple majority. Rather, the problem is that Democratic reluctance to go for this “constitutional option” is causing them to lean more towards negotiating a deal with Republicans — enabling it to pass without the constitutional option — that risks diluting reform. In other words, even if Dems can pass reform via simple majority, enough Dems may end up preferring instead to reach a deal with Republicans on a less comprehensive reform package.

Part of the problem here may lie with the proposed reforms. Merkley, for example, has been pushing the "talking filibuster," which would require the minority party to keep talking if they want to keep filibustering. But I'm barely willing to write about that, let alone start mobilizing over it. I simply don't think it would have the slightest effect. Republicans would have little trouble keeping up a filibuster via tag-teaming, and the Senate would grind to a complete halt while it was going on. The end result would be to slow down the Senate more than under the current rules. Hell, if I were Mitch McConnell, I'd offer to cosponsor this "reform."

In fairness, Merkley has also made other proposals. He wants to end the ability to filibuster a mere motion to debate, and he wants to end the rule that allows the minority to tie up the Senate for 30 hours even after a filibuster has been broken. Those are both good ideas, though hardly groundbreaking ones. They'd change the minority's ability to obstruct only at the margin.

I honestly have no idea why liberals are so entranced by the talking filibuster. Maybe they've watched Mr. Smith Goes to Washington one too many times. But frankly, if Merkley wants me to get more excited, I need some proposals to get excited about. Forget the talking filibuster. It's a dead end. Instead, let's hear some proposals that would make a real difference, especially in the confirmation of executive branch appointments.

Democrats Are Hamstrung By Their Concern With Deficits

| Thu Dec. 13, 2012 1:42 PM EST

Matt Yglesias makes a valuable point about the political realities of federal spending today. The reality is this: Republicans don't care about the deficit. When they're in power, they enact tax cuts and spending increases without bothering to pay for them. Democrats do care about the deficit. When they're in power, they abide by PAYGO rules that require all spending programs to be paid for.

This is not a law of nature, but it does describe the actual way that Washington works. This means that if, say, future president Hillary Clinton wants to enact a universal preschool program, she'll need to find tax hikes to pay for it. That will be a lot easier if current president Barack Obama doesn't make a grand bargain that includes lots of tax hikes. If, instead, he makes a deal with only $800 billion in new revenue, it gives future Hillary a wider menu of possible tax increases to pay for her preschool program. So maybe a small deal is the best bet after all.

This is not the whole story, of course. Large and persistent deficits also make it harder to enact new spending programs, so if Obama makes a deal that keeps the deficit high that will act as a brake on future spending initiatives in the same way that already high taxes would. I think it's a little hard to figure out exactly how the political calculus would net out here.

More broadly, I'd say this: if liberals want to retain the option to enact new programs in the future, the best thing working in their favor is a strong economy. That's more likely to lead to a Democrat winning the presidency in 2016 and it provides an environment far more conducive to spending more money. So the question is: what policy is most likely to lead to medium-term economy recovery? On that score, the answer is the same as always: higher spending now and lower deficits in the future. The exact composition of the deficit reduction is probably a second-order issue here.

We Are More Alike Than We Think

| Thu Dec. 13, 2012 12:25 PM EST

Here's the latest from Jonathan Haidt of "moral foundations" fame. He was part of a team that asked about 2,000 people to rate how they felt a "typical" liberal or conservative integrated five moral dimensions into their worldview. There are real differences: "Liberals endorse the individual-focused moral concerns of compassion and fairness more than conservatives do, and conservatives endorse the group-focused moral concerns of ingroup loyalty, respect for authorities and traditions, and physical/spiritual purity more than liberals do."

That's reality, but what do people think? Answer: they substantially exaggerate the moral differences between liberals and conservatives. In fact, they exaggerate the extremity of moral concerns for both their own group and the other group. And there's bad news for us lefties: as the chart on the right shows, we were the biggest exaggerators. Apparently conservatives know us better than we know them.

Why? One possibility is that the study is wrong. Its sample was light on extreme conservatives, and that might have made a difference even after the researchers corrected for it. A second possibility is that liberals are over-influenced by Fox News and Rush Limbaugh. We take them as representative of conservatives even though they represent only its right wing. A third possibility is that the conservative leadership in Washington DC is more hardnosed than the movement as a whole, and everyone legitimately takes that as representing real-world conservatism. And finally, a fourth possibility is simply that liberals are wrong. We interact very little with conservative institutions (churches, business groups, etc.) and therefore don't understand them, while conservatives have no choice but to interact with liberal institutions (Hollywood, academia, etc.).

You may leave other possibilities in comments.

The Surveillance State Grows Another Tentacle

| Thu Dec. 13, 2012 2:41 AM EST

After the attempted Christmas Day bombing of 2009, a Senate investigation concluded that the National Counterterrorism Center had received information about Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab, the would-be underwear bomber, but had failed to query other government agencies about him. This allowed him to board his flight to the U.S. and nearly detonate his bomb. President Obama responded by ordering all agencies to send their leads to NCTC, which was ordered to "pursue thoroughly and exhaustively terrorism threat threads."

Unfortunately, NCTC didn't have the resources to "exhaustively" pursue the torrent of leads it began receiving. So it fell behind. Late last year, after Homeland Security had given NCTC a database on condition that it purge the names of all innocent persons within 30 days, things came to a head. Homeland Security eventually revoked NCTC's access to the data and NCTC decided it needed to operate under different rules. In particular, it wanted unlimited access to all government agency information for as long as it needed it, including both suspects and non-suspects alike. In March, after discussion at the White House, Eric Holder granted their request.

A terrific Wall Street Journal story explains what happened next:

The rules now 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.

...."It's breathtaking" in its scope, said a former senior administration official familiar with the White House debate....Under the new rules, [NCTC] can obtain almost any database the government collects that it says is "reasonably believed" to contain "terrorism information." The list could potentially include almost any government database, from financial forms submitted by people seeking federally backed mortgages to the health records of people who sought treatment at Veterans Administration hospitals.

We've been through this before, of course, but public outcry put an end to Total Information Awareness, the Bush-era data-mining program designed to trawl through every byte of data that anyone anywhere had ever collected about you. This time, though, there's been no outcry. Why? Because, according to the Journal, "For one thing, the debate happened behind closed doors."

That's one way to keep people from complaining, though it turns out that whenever NCTC wants access to a new database, the target of the request will probably post a notice in the Federal Register. At that point, you are allowed to submit comments if you like. However, the Journal dryly notes, nobody is required to make changes based on the comments.

Welcome to the new national security state. Be sure to read the entire story.

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Quote of the Day: The Fed Can't Save Us From the Fiscal Cliff

| Wed Dec. 12, 2012 11:36 PM EST

From Ben Bernanke, at a news conference following the Fed's announcement of more aggressive monetary easing:

Monetary policy has its limits. Only the private and public sectors, working together, can get the U.S. economy fully back on track. In particular, it will be critical that fiscal policymakers come together soon to achieve longer-term fiscal sustainability without adopting policies that could derail the ongoing recovery.

Translation: We're doing our best. Now for God's sake, let's all hope that the nitwits in Congress don't screw things up.

How Do American Kids Stack Up on Math, Science, and Reading?

| Wed Dec. 12, 2012 4:13 PM EST

Bob Somerby alerts me that new international test results are in. Here they are:

  • In 8th grade math, American students ranked ninth out of the 56 educational systems that participated in the testing, behind five Asian countries and three others. Average scores are up 17 points since 1995.
  • In 8th grade science, American students ranked tenth out of 56, behind the same five Asian countries plus four others. Average scores are up 12 points since 1995.
  • Reading scores are available only for fourth graders. American students ranked sixth out of 53. Average scores are up 14 points since 2001.

So are American kids hopelessly behind their peers around the world? It doesn't really look that way to me, though note that not all countries participate in every test. As usual, though, I'm posting the raw data below so you can make up your own mind. The full math/science results are here. The full reading results are here. The full results include more detailed information on what percentage of kids scored at high vs. intermediate levels, as well as some race/gender/state comparisons. Overall, however, U.S. results seem to be about the same no matter how you slice them. Roughly speaking, we're in the bottom half of the top ten.

UPDATE: I included an incomplete table in the original version of this post, which showed American rankings in math and science slightly higher than they should have been. I've corrected both the tables and the text.

UPDATE 2: If you're wondering why the math and science tables don't have 56 entries, it's because several of the "educational systems" are subregions of larger countries, including nine U.S. states and three Canadian provinces. The main table only shows the primary political entities that participated in the testing.

At Midnight, Loud TV Commercials Will Go Away

| Wed Dec. 12, 2012 2:36 PM EST

I have fallen down on my duty to keep track of the CALM Act, which requires TV commercials to have the same average volume as TV programs. Luckily, Adam Weinstein is more conscientious than me, and he reports that the FCC's new rules go into effect at midnight tonight. In theory, this means no more hucksters suddenly blasting your eardrums and waking the baby whenever Burn Notice goes to a commercial break.

As I've mentioned before, I think about this new rule the same way I think about the Do Not Call list. I don't care if it's "liberal" or "conservative." I don't care if it's hard to implement. I don't care whether or not you can justify it from first principles. I just don't care. All I want is for this to stop, and I'm perfectly willing to bring down the entire weight of the federal government to make it happen. As far as I'm concerned, this might very well be the only thing Congress did in the entire year of 2011 to improve our lives.

UPDATE: Via Twitter, Dave Dayen corrects me. The FCC's rules were adopted last year, but the CALM Act was passed in the 2010 lame duck session. This means that most likely Congress did nothing useful at all in 2011.

Quote of the Day: Federal Reserve Finally Starts to Get Serious

| Wed Dec. 12, 2012 1:54 PM EST

From the Federal Reserve, announcing a bigger, bolder bid to use the expectations channel to manage monetary policy:

In particular, the Committee decided to keep the target range for the federal funds rate at 0 to 1/4 percent and currently anticipates that this exceptionally low range for the federal funds rate will be appropriate at least as long as the unemployment rate remains above 6-1/2 percent, inflation between one and two years ahead is projected to be no more than a half percentage point above the Committee’s 2 percent longer-run goal, and longer-term inflation expectations continue to be well anchored.

This is a considerable surprise. Instead of merely confirming that they're still committed to their previously announced quantitative easing program (QE3) and that low interest rates are "likely to be warranted" through 2015, the Fed has gone much further. They've now announced specific goals: interest rates will stay low at least until unemployment gets below 6.5 percent, and they're willing to tolerate inflation of 2.5 percent along the way.

This may seem like small potatoes. Unemployment will probably drop below 6.5 percent by 2015 anyway, and inflation of 2.5 percent is only slightly above the current target.  But in this case, it really is the thought that counts. A specific employment target is brand new, and a willingness to tolerate higher inflation at all is brand new.

This is big news. I expect conservative outrage ("debasing the currency," "hyperinflation right around the corner," etc.) to be in full swing by the time I manage to hit the Publish button on this post.

POSTSCRIPT: And why the change? Because the Fed believes the economy continues to show a lot of weakness. "The Committee remains concerned that, without sufficient policy accommodation, economic growth might not be strong enough to generate sustained improvement in labor market conditions. Furthermore, strains in global financial markets continue to pose significant downside risks to the economic outlook. The Committee also anticipates that inflation over the medium term likely would run at or below its 2 percent objective."