Kevin Drum - 2012

The Disappearance of (Human) Work

| Fri Dec. 7, 2012 2:21 PM EST

Via Ed Kilgore, I see that Jonathan Rauch has a stimulating piece in National Journal about the long-term exit of men from the workforce. This is especially true of men with high-school educations or less:

Both men and women have suffered from the disappearance of well-paying mid-skilled jobs in factories and offices. But they have responded very differently. “Women have been up-skilling very rapidly,” said MIT’s [David] Autor, “whereas men have been much, much less successful in adapting.” Women have responded to the labor market’s increased preference for brains over brawn by streaming through college and into the workforce—one of the great successes of the U.S. economy. Men’s rate of completing college has barely budged since the late 1970s.

To women, men who either can’t or don’t earn a decent living are less necessary and desirable as mates; they’re just another mouth to feed. This helps to explain why rates of out-of-wedlock childbirth have risen to hitherto unimaginable heights among the less educated. Causality also flows in the opposite direction. The very fact of being married brings men a premium in their earnings, research shows, and makes them steadier workers, presumably because they have more stability at home. “Marriage is an institution that makes men more responsible in their pursuit of work and in their work-related duties,” said Brad Wilcox, a University of Virginia sociologist who directs the National Marriage Project.

I think this is actually even worse than Autor suggests. Yes, women upskilled as they broke free of postwar gender constraints starting in the 60s, but that trend has pretty much run its course. Female labor force participation peaked around 2000, and since then it's been falling too.

What's the answer? Liberals suggest more vocational education. Conservatives think we should stigmatize nonwork and reduce welfare transfers. Everyone agrees that more kids should go to college.

But will any of that work? Craft work has long since given way to factory work, and if Chinese workers will do factory work for less than American workers, then more vocational education won't do much good. Likewise, if there just aren't enough jobs for the weakly educated, stigmatizing nonwork won't do any good either. It will just immiserate people for no reason. And the kind of people who are most affected by all this—high-school dropouts and those who barely got diplomas—aren't going to college no matter how much we push them. It's just not going to happen.

It's hard to be optimistic here. Until about 2000 or so, you could argue that declining male labor force participation was mostly due to increasing female participation. But that doesn't wash anymore. Since 2000, work attachment has been going down for everyone. There's something else going on, and I suspect it's very strongly related to increased automation. We've seen this especially strongly since the 2008 recession, as businesses let go of millions of workers and then discovered they just flatly didn't need them back when the economy started to recover.

This is only going to get worse as automation gets better and better. Things will probably improve a bit in the short term as the economy continues to recover from the Great Recession (assuming we don't idiotically force ourselves into a double-dip via bad fiscal policy). But the longer-term trend is pretty stark, and it's not clear what the answer is. I'm not sure there is one.

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Mitch McConnell's Peculiar Debt Ceiling Gambit

| Fri Dec. 7, 2012 12:57 PM EST

I was browsing through Steve Benen's blog today, and it reminded me of something that had me scratching my head yesterday. As you know, Mitch McConnell introduced a bill that would have allowed the president to raise the debt ceiling on his own, leaving Congress out of it. But why?

McConnell assumed that Senate Democrats — at least a big chunk of the caucus, anyway — would balk at Obama's proposal, so he introduced the plan himself. The point was to have Dems object to McConnell's effort, so the Minority Leader could get a new talking point: the president's offer is so offensive that even his own party isn't willing to support it.

This puzzled me when I first read it, but I didn't bother blogging about it. So now I will. My question is this: why did McConnell think this in the first place? I can't think of any compelling reasons that Dems would have balked at his proposal. They certainly don't want a debt ceiling fight while Obama is president, and they've never used the debt ceiling to hold a Republican president hostage. That's purely a GOP gambit.

So what was McConnell thinking? Does anyone know?

Immigration Reform Might Finally See the Light of Day

| Fri Dec. 7, 2012 12:35 PM EST

Roughly speaking—very roughly—my guess is that Republicans will eventually come to an agreement on the fiscal cliff and the debt ceiling. The election is still recent; pressure is high to do something; and the PR cost of obstruction is overwhelming. After that, however, it's going to be all-obstruction-all-the-time, just like the past four years.

The only big exception, I think, is immigration reform, where the GOP's sense of raw self-preservation might force them into some kind of compromise on a comprehensive immigration bill. This is no sure thing, mind you: there are plenty of Republicans in the Senate who have been in favor of an immigration compromise for a long time, but the 2006 deal on immigration wasn't derailed in the Senate. It was derailed in the House, and it's not clear if attitudes have softened there noticeably. Still, election results have a bracing effect, and November's results could hardly have been clearer that Republicans are doomed if they continue to receive only 27 percent of the Hispanic vote. Ron Brownstein notes today that there have already been a couple of new Republican proposals in just the past week:

Even if the proposals aren't perfect and even if they don't move forward, they indicate that Republicans are slowly recognizing that something must be done, and that more is needed than merely tighter border controls and harsher treatment of illegal immigrants.

....The president must be far more involved than he was during his first term, when he offered flowery rhetoric and little else. He should present a road map for reform that not only calls for enforcing immigration laws at the border and in the workplace, but also provides a realistic plan for dealing with those undocumented immigrants who are already in the country. Obama should also push for a guest-worker program that ensures growers a reliable source of workers while protecting the rights of those foreign farm laborers. And he should back Republican efforts to modernize the visa system to ensure that foreign graduate students aren't forced to leave the country as soon as they're handed a diploma.

Obama has said he can't repair the nation's immigration system alone. It now seems Republicans may offer a much-needed hand.

Is this the right strategy? The problem, as always, is that as soon as Obama puts his name to something, it's an immediate red flag for conservative Republicans. Obama discovered this over and over during his first term. So although he should certainly be publicly fighting for immigration reform, I suspect that when it comes to specifics he might be better off leading behind the scenes and allowing Congress to do most of the fighting. After all, the tea party may be in decline, but it's not gone yet, and immigration reform will only succeed if, somehow, Republicans think they're going to get some credit for it. A low profile on specific proposals might be the best way to get there.

Chart of the Day: Net New Jobs in November

| Fri Dec. 7, 2012 11:42 AM EST

The American economy added 146,000 new jobs last month, but about 90,000 of those jobs were needed just to keep up with population growth, so net job growth was closer to 56,000 jobs. This was slightly higher than October, but only by a tick. The headline unemployment number declined to 7.7 percent.

For the conspiracy-minded, BLS revised both its September and October estimates downward. I guess they were fudging the numbers to make Obama look good after all. Live and learn.

New Test Shows Severe Shortcomings in Nation's Press Corps

| Fri Dec. 7, 2012 2:00 AM EST

I swear, sometimes I just want to cry. Here's a story in the Wall Street Journal today:

Students Fall Flat in Vocabulary Test

U.S. students knew only about half of what they were expected to on a new vocabulary section of a national exam, in the latest evidence of severe shortcomings in the nation's reading education. Eighth-graders scored an average of 265 out of 500 in vocabulary on the 2011 National Assessment of Educational Progress, the results of which were made public Thursday. Fourth-graders averaged a score of 218 out of 500.

I'm not crying for the students. I'm crying for the reporter, who apparently believes that students "knew only about half of what they were expected to" because they scored in the vicinity of 250 out of 500. And since 250 is half of 500, that must mean students only knew half of what they should.

This is wrong on so many levels I don't even know where to start. First, these are scale scores, not percentages of correct answers. Second, they're normed scores. Third, this is the same way all the NAEP tests are done, and they all produce scores in the same vicinity. The current eighth grade math average is 284. The reading average is 265. The history average is 266. Etc. And since the scores are scaled so that ten points roughly equals a grade level, fourth graders scored a little more than 40 points lower by definition.

In other words, these numbers in isolation don't tell us anything at all about whether the vocabulary skills of our children are weak or strong. It's like saying someone who scored 100 out of 200 on an IQ test must be a moron. Unfortunately, the reporter was flatly ignorant of all this, so she simply hauled out standard hysterical template No. 4 and decided that the test results represented "severe shortcomings in the nation's reading education" even though they show no such thing.

This stuff just never ends. I wish our nation's reporters were required to take an NAEP test of their own every year. I think that's probably the only thing that might motivate them to figure out what these scores actually tell us.

Test results are here, if you want to know more.

4 Ways Obama Might Win the Debt Ceiling Brawl

| Thu Dec. 6, 2012 6:01 PM EST

What happens after we get a deal on the fiscal cliff? If Republicans are to be believed, we'll just sail right into a second crisis, this time over raising the debt ceiling. They're insisting that, once again, they'll refuse to raise the ceiling unless President Obama agrees to massive spending cuts.

We'll see. But it's worth pondering what Obama's options are for simply ignoring the debt ceiling and continuing to spend money regardless of whether Republicans agree to raise it. Several theories have been floating around since the first debt ceiling crisis last year. Here they are:

  • The 14th Amendment: Under this theory, the president would simply invoke the 14th Amendment, which says, "The validity of the public debt of the United States, authorized by law […] shall not be questioned." Bill Clinton thinks this would work, but it strikes me as unlikely. Even if the debt ceiling isn't raised, the public debt is still valid and the Treasury can continue to pay it. Lots of other spending would have to be cut, but not debt payments.
  • The platinum coin: There's an obscure statute that authorizes the Treasury to mint platinum coins "in accordance with such specifications, designs, varieties, quantities, denominations, and inscriptions as the Secretary, in the Secretary’s discretion, may prescribe from time to time." Jack Balkin suggests that the secretary of the Treasury could simply mint a $1 trillion platinum coin, deposit it at the Federal Reserve, and then write checks on it. I don't buy this one either. It's just too outré. It's the kind of thing that sounds cute to a blogger tapping away on his laptop, but there's no way an actual president would ever try anything so obviously childish.
  • Priority of legislation: In general, recent legislation overrides older legislation when there's a conflict. The president could argue that the last debt ceiling increase was passed in August 2011, and that any spending legislation passed since then implies Congress' consent to raise the debt ceiling. They knew we were running a deficit when they approved the spending, after all. Obama would just have to make sure to fund mandatory programs first (Social Security, Medicare, etc.), since they were authorized decades ago, and then issue new debt only to fund discretionary spending.
  • You and whose army? This is the most important argument of all. Regardless of the legal justification, the real question is whether a court would interfere. Many people think the filibuster is unconstitutional, for example, but everyone agrees that it doesn't matter because no court will ever touch the subject. It's an internal matter for Congress to decide. This is similar: the debt ceiling is a political argument between two branches of government, not a legal one. Jonathan Zasloff adds a little meat to this argument, suggesting that there's literally no one with proper standing to sue in the first place.

During the last debt ceiling fight, Obama never suggested he'd resort to unilateral action like this. Partly that's because he genuinely wanted to make a "grand bargain" on spending, and the debt ceiling fight was pretty good political cover for that. This time he doesn't, so he might be more likely to try it. However, one interesting question about this is whether he's ever asked the Office of Legal Counsel for an opinion about any of these theories. If he has, and it was negative, that would probably restrain him. If he hasn't, he'd probably need to in order to maintain his credibility on the issue. That's a risk, of course, since there's no telling what OLC's lawyers would come up with. There's a political risk too: Congressional Republicans could go ballistic and become even more obstreperous than they are now. Fun times.

UPDATE: Via Twitter, Brian Beutler reminds me that OLC has given guidance to Obama on the 14th Amendment question. We just don't know what they said. However, given Obama's comments at the time, they probably told him no dice.

UPDATE 2: Several people have pushed back on my dismissal of the platinum coin ploy. I'm not a lawyer, but my sense is that this is so wildly contrary to the intent of the law, which was to allow the Treasury to issue commemorative and bullion coins, that a court probably would intervene if the president tried to pull this off. The other ploys are at at least minimally plausible, but this one is banana republic territory.

UPDATE 3: For what it's worth, I agree that the president's best option is to simply start shutting down chunks of the government if Congress refuses to raise the debt ceiling. Republicans seem to have convinced themselves that the lessons of 1995 no longer apply, but I think they do. This would be a PR disaster for them. They'd cave before long.

The thing they don't understand is that Obama wasn't playing hardball in 2011. He actually wanted a deal, and they were nuts not to take him up on it. This time he doesn't, and he has the power and the credibility to make sure that Republicans take the blame when national parks get closed and passports stop getting issued.

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Hillary Clinton Is Not the Favorite for 2016

| Thu Dec. 6, 2012 4:42 PM EST

I don't want to go all Andy Rooneyish on y'all, but can everyone please stop with the nonsense about Hillary Clinton being the heavy favorite for the 2016 Democratic nomination? She's not. She's just the best known Democrat at this moment in time. There's a world of difference. 

Republicans Really, Really Like to Filibuster Things

| Thu Dec. 6, 2012 3:15 PM EST

Today, Mitch McConnell filibustered his own bill. That is all. 

Revenue vs. "Revenue"

| Thu Dec. 6, 2012 1:54 PM EST

A couple of times recently I've buried a point that really deserves to be front and center. Here it is: Republicans have not agreed to increase taxes. In John Boehner's letter to President Obama on Monday, he said a grand total of two things about taxes:

  1. Republicans continue to oppose higher marginal tax rates.
  2. Instead, new revenue should come from "pro-growth tax reform that closes special-interest loopholes and deductions while lowering rates."

You have to perform some conservative Kremlinology to decode this, but it's not really that hard. Recall that last year, during the debt ceiling talks, Boehner agreed to $800 billion in new revenue. But this turned out to be revenue in name only: It came mostly from dynamic scoring, the supply-side pixie dust that says lower tax rates supercharge economic growth and therefore produce more tax revenue automatically. The media post-mortems were all a little fuzzy on this point, but they mostly seem to suggest that the loopholes Boehner agreed to close were primarily to make up for the lower rates. The net new revenue came almost entirely from dynamic scoring.

The same thing is going on here. Boehner's letter was signed by Eric Cantor and Paul Ryan, but note exactly what it said. They want to close loopholes "while lowering tax rates." This suggests that they think the loophole closings will make up for the lower rates but not produce any net new revenue. That will come from the pro-growth magic of rate-lowering and base-broadening.

I know I open myself up to charges of excessive cynicism here. But Boehner, Cantor, and Ryan can prove me wrong with just a few plain words. So far they haven't, and their public letter was phrased very carefully indeed. No matter how much the Washington pundit class wants to believe it, they very decidedly haven't agreed, even in principle, to higher taxes. Anyone who thinks they have should just ask them directly.

Sorry, But "Fiscal Cliff" is Here to Stay

| Thu Dec. 6, 2012 1:09 PM EST

Ryan Cooper is unhappy that we lefties haven't been able to agree on a catchphrase to describe what will happen on January 1:

Ben Bernanke came up with the phrase "fiscal cliff," and it stuck. This phrase is deeply misleading—indeed, it was probably deliberately exaggerated—so liberals tried to come up with a more accurate catchphrase. They tried, but failed for lack of unity. Paul Waldman called it the "austerity trap." Chris Hayes called it the "fiscal curb." Paul Krugman called it the "austerity bomb." Ezra Klein, most notably, made a major push for "austerity crisis," but even the mighty Wonkblog couldn't get everyone to agree.

I think things are both better and worse than Ryan suggests. Worse, because "fiscal slope" was kinda sorta catching on well before any of these renaming initiatives started up, and we could have simply adopted that. But no: as Ryan says, we liberals just couldn't rally around a phrase that wasn't quite right. We insisted on coming up with something better.

At the same time, this really doesn't speak as poorly of liberals as Ryan thinks. I've heard versions of his complaint dozens of times, but the truth is that making up a new name for something is really, really hard. New names almost never catch on, period, and when they do it's usually organic. They don't catch on because someone runs a contest or because someone with a megaphone forces us into it. And they especially don't catch on when the new phrase sounds forced and artificial, as they almost always do.

Conservatives have had a few successes over the past couple of decades pushing new terms into the public discourse—"death tax," "partial birth abortion"—and I know that lefties are jealous of this. But it doesn't happen very often. Liberals scored a hit with "top 1 percent" last year, but that was a success because it happened organically. There was no Frank Luntzian character behind it. Likewise, I think that Dave Roberts' "climate hawk" might catch on. It's not organic, but it is pretty natural sounding. It has a chance of entering the standard lexicon because it's easy to use, doesn't require explanation, and sounds punchy.

And another thing: it always takes time for new terms to become widely used. I don't bother using any of the fiscal cliff alternatives that Ryan mentions because (a) let's be honest, they all sound stupid, and (b) I'd have to add a parenthetical explanation every time I used one of them. The fiscal cliff fight is only going to last a few months, and for better or worse, everyone knows what I'm talking about when I say fiscal cliff. There's just not enough time for an alternative to catch on.