Kevin Drum - 2012

Factlet of the Day: The World's Best-Paid Clerks

| Fri Nov. 30, 2012 11:53 AM EST

Clerical workers are on strike at the Port of Los Angeles. They aren't striking over pay or benefits, but this claim still made me sit up a little straighter over my morning corn flakes:

Stephen Berry, lead negotiator for the shipping lines and cargo terminals, said the clerical workers have been offered a deal that includes "absolute job security," a raise that would take average annual pay to $195,000 from $165,000, 11 weeks' paid vacation and a generous pension increase.

Wow.

Advertise on MotherJones.com

Chart of the Day: Prescription Drug Prices are Skyrocketing

| Fri Nov. 30, 2012 11:18 AM EST

Obviously prescription drugs cost more than generics. But prices are also diverging dramatically. Via Austin Frakt, the chart below tells the story. While the price of generic drugs has fallen significantly over the past four years, the price of prescription drugs has skyrocketed, outpacing inflation by more than 50 percent. You're paying a lot for those name brands.

Reining in the Drone War

| Fri Nov. 30, 2012 6:08 AM EST

Last weekend the New York Times reported on a promising development: the Obama administration is working to develop "explicit rules for the targeted killing of terrorists by unmanned drones." Needless to say, explicit rules can also be bad rules, so this is no guarantee of progress. Still, there's some value in publicly agreeing that drone strikes shouldn't literally be approved solely at the whim of the president.

Unfortunately, there was a catch: the administration's newfound dedication to rules was prompted primarily by the possibility that they might lose the election:

“There was concern that the levers might no longer be in our hands,” said one official, speaking on condition of anonymity. With a continuing debate about the proper limits of drone strikes, Mr. Obama did not want to leave an “amorphous” program to his successor, the official said. The effort, which would have been rushed to completion by January had Mr. Romney won, will now be finished at a more leisurely pace, the official said.

But it was never Mitt Romney that we needed to worry about. Last month the Washington Post wrote about the Orwellian-sounding "disposition matrix," a rapidly growing database of targets for a drone fleet operated almost entirely in the shadows:

Although the matrix is a work in progress, the effort to create it reflects a reality setting in among the nation’s counterterrorism ranks: The United States’ conventional wars are winding down, but the government expects to continue adding names to kill or capture lists for years....That timeline suggests that the United States has reached only the midpoint of what was once known as the global war on terrorism. Targeting lists that were regarded as finite emergency measures after the attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, are now fixtures of the national security apparatus. The rosters expand and contract with the pace of drone strikes but never go to zero.

And if you think that at least we're lucky that Barack Obama can be trusted with this kind of power, think again. As Micah Zenko wrote about the Post's revelations:

Having spoken with dozens of officials across both administrations, I am convinced that those serving under President Bush were actually much more conscious and thoughtful about the long-term implications of targeted killings than those serving under Obama....Recently, I spoke to a military official with extensive and wide-ranging experience in the special operations world, and who has had direct exposure to the targeted killing program. To emphasize how easy targeted killings by special operations forces or drones has become, this official flicked his hand back over and over, stating: “It really is like swatting flies. We can do it forever easily and you feel nothing. But how often do you really think about killing a fly?”

The truth is that it shouldn't be the president making these rules in the first place. It should be Congress. And outside of war zones, there ought to be serious judicial review as well. Nobody should have the unchecked, unilateral power to kill anyone, anytime, anywhere in the world. And the lesson of history about this is pretty plain: this is a more important principle for people you trust than for people you don't.

Congress has ducked its responsibilities here for far too long. President Obama, like any president, should be required to follow rules that Congress has set and that the president can't change with the stroke of a pen. This is something, at long last, that you'd think Republicans would actually agree with.

No, the Social Security Trust Fund Isn't a Fiction

| Fri Nov. 30, 2012 2:02 AM EST

Charles Krauthammer is upset that Dick Durbin says Social Security is off the table in the fiscal cliff negotiations because it doesn't add to the deficit:

This is absurd. In 2012, Social Security adds $165 billion to the deficit. Democrats pretend that Social Security is covered through 2033 by its trust fund. Except that the trust fund is a fiction, a mere “bookkeeping” device, as the Office of Management and Budget itself has written. The trust fund’s IOUs “do not consist of real economic assets that can be drawn down in the future to fund benefits.” Future benefits “will have to be financed by raising taxes, borrowing from the public, or reducing benefits or other expenditures.”

What Krauthammer means is that as Social Security draws down its trust fund, it sells bonds back to the Treasury. The money it gets for those bonds comes from the general fund, which means that it does indeed have an effect on the deficit.

That much is true. But the idea that the trust fund is a "fiction" is absolutely wrong. And since this zombie notion is bound to come up repeatedly over the next few weeks, it's worth explaining why it's wrong. So here it is.

Starting in 1983, the payroll tax was deliberately set higher than it needed to be to cover payments to retirees. For the next 30 years, this extra money was sent to the Treasury, and this windfall allowed income tax rates to be lower than they otherwise would have been. During this period, people who paid payroll taxes suffered from this arrangement, while people who paid income taxes benefited.

Now things have turned around. As the baby boomers have started to retire, payroll taxes are less than they need to be to cover payments to retirees. To make up this shortfall, the Treasury is paying back the money it got over the past 30 years, and this means that income taxes need to be higher than they otherwise would be. For the next few decades, people who pay payroll taxes will benefit from this arrangement, while people who pay income taxes will suffer.

If payroll taxpayers and income taxpayers were the same people, none of this would matter. The trust fund really would be a fiction. But they aren't. Payroll taxpayers tend to be the poor and the middle class. Income taxpayers tend to be the upper middle class and the rich. Long story short, for the past 30 years, the poor and the middle class overpaid and the rich benefited. For the next 30 years or so, the rich will overpay and the poor and the middle class will benefit.

The trust fund is the physical embodiment of that deal. It's no surprise that the rich, who didn't object to this arrangement when it was first made, are now having second thoughts. But make no mistake. When wealthy pundits like Krauthammer claim that the trust fund is a fiction, they're trying to renege on a deal halfway through because they don't want to pay back the loans they got.

As it happens, I think this was a dumb deal. But that doesn't matter. It's the deal we made, and the poor and the middle class kept up their end of it for 30 years. Now it's time for the rich to keep up their end of the deal. Unless you think that promises are just so much wastepaper, this is the farthest thing imaginable from fiction. It's as real as taxes.

Conservative Dogma Is Bad For You

| Thu Nov. 29, 2012 5:36 PM EST

I guess today is the day for either catastrophic news (sea levels rising faster than we thought, GDP growth worse than we thought) or else political news that just makes me laugh. Earlier this morning I passed along the comical news that Republicans refuse to tell anyone what entitlement cuts they allegedly want to make, and now I learn from MoJo's own Erika Eichelberger that our good friends at ALEC have finally gotten the comeuppance they deserve. ALEC is a conservative group that writes model bills for friendly state legislatures, and although they sometimes branch out into things like voter ID laws, most of their focus is on anti-tax and anti-labor bills.

Every year they write a report extolling the virtues of their work and ranking all 50 states by how slavishly they follow ALEC's recommendations. But they mostly use statistical comparisons that would embarrass an eighth-grader. They cherry pick, showing the performance of one particular state vs. another. They show only the top seven, or nine, or five states compared to the bottom seven, or nine, or five. They weight every state equally, so big growth in tiny states counts as much as sluggish growth in big states. And guess what? Using their carefully invented measures, states with high ALEC scores always turn out to perform better than states with low ALEC scores. Amazing!

Well, this year someone finally called their bluff and simply produced a bog-ordinary scatterplot that compared ALEC scores vs. economic performance for all 50 states. And guess what? It turns out that high ALEC scores are correlated with negative employment growth, negative income growth, negative government revenue growth, and no difference in state GDP growth. Erika has all the charts here. Enjoy.

Congress About to Get Hit in the Head With the Price of Climate Change

| Thu Nov. 29, 2012 3:21 PM EST

A few weeks ago I linked to a piece Chris Mooney did for us about the effect of climate change on Hurricane Sandy. Chris made the point that although you can argue about whether climate change is responsible for any particular hurricane, there's no question that climate change is responsible for a rise in sea level, which makes the damage from hurricanes much worse than it otherwise would be. And that includes Hurricane Sandy. "There is 100 percent certainty that sea level rise made this worse," sea level expert Ben Strauss said. "Period."

Well, it turns out the news is even worse than that. A new study using satellite data suggests that, if anything, forecasts of sea level rise in the most recent IPCC reports have been too low. Global warming is about where the predictions say it should be, but the amount of warming we're getting is increasing sea level a lot faster than we thought it would. The chart below shows the difference between reality and the two most recent IPCC forecasts.

This unexpected rise isn't due to medium-term variability, and it's not due to a temporary release from Greenland's ice sheets. The most likely explanation is simply that sea level rise is more sensitive to global warming than we thought. Congress—along with all the skeptics who argue that it's cheaper to pay the price of climate change than it is to stop it—should think about this when they're considering the $100 billion in disaster funds that northeastern states are requesting to clean up after Sandy.

Advertise on MotherJones.com

Chart of the Day: Our Economy's Real Problem

| Thu Nov. 29, 2012 1:14 PM EST

Here's some grim news, courtesy of Brad DeLong. We all know that the economy is operating well below its potential, a problem that congressional Republicans, to their eternal dishonor, are flatly unwilling to allow anyone to deal with. But things are worse than that: the economy's potential has been going down too. The chart below shows the evolution of the CBO's estimate of potential GDP between 2007 and now 

Add up both the drop in potential GDP and the fact that we're operating well below even that, and the American economy is running at about $2.5 trillion under its forecast from only a few years ago. Congressional action probably can't fix this entirely, but it could sure fix a lot of it. It's scandalous that we're wasting our time talking about invented nonsense like Benghazi and the fiscal cliff instead.

New York City's Murder Rate Was Zero Last Monday

| Thu Nov. 29, 2012 12:43 PM EST

Matt Steinglass passes along some good news from the Big Apple:

New York City went a day without a murder on Monday, which according to police was the first time anyone could remember that happening. Overall, the city's murder rate this year is down 23%, reaching levels last seen in 1960. This is a milestone in the 20-year-long decline of violent crime in the Big Apple. It's cause for celebration, and Reuters reports that crime expert Tom Repetto attributes the success in part to the city's aggressive policing strategies, the famous "broken windows" tactics that got started in the 1990s under Ray Kelly, the police chief, and have more recently included the controversial stop-and-frisk policy.

Hmmm. Broken windows. Really?

But hold on a minute. Up in Boston, they also had tremendous success in cutting murder rates in the 1990s. But they didn't focus on the broken-windows strategy, stop-and-frisk, or going after petty offenders. Instead they launched a project called "Operation Ceasefire" to cut gang violence.

Gangs? Okey dokey.

But hold on another minute! What's that you say, Eric Tucker of the Associated Press? Washington, DC is likely to see its first year in decades with less than 100 murders? Wow! In the late 1980s and early 1990s Washington had over 500 murders per year. Why the decline? No single factor, says Mr Tucker. A little of this, a little of that, a little of something else you probably never even thought of.

Matt suggests this means we shouldn't look for simple answers:

What's the takeaway message? I'd say there are two of them. First of all, beware of takeaway messages! Lots of things in life, maybe most things, often the most important things, don't have explanations that can be packaged as a simple, coherent thesis. Second, given our inability to explain definitively why the crime rate is falling, we may need some scepticism about the recent push to demand scientifically valid evidence for the effectiveness of social betterment programmes. Random controlled trials might very well have found that the broken-windows strategy doesn't prevent crime, "Project Ceasefire" doesn't prevent crime, reducing rates of single motherhood doesn't prevent crime, family planning doesn't prevent crime, banning lead doesn't prevent crime, and so on and so forth; there might have been no statistically significant difference one could isolate for any of these things. And yet it seems extremely likely to me that most or all of these were good things to do! The drop in violent crime probably has to do with all of them.

I want to be careful here. Crime is a complex problem, and Matt is right that lots of things can affect both its rise and fall. I happen to believe that both "broken windows" and "Operation Ceasefire" programs are effective. And yet, I think he's 180 degrees off here. If you had lots of different cities with lots of different results, you'd be justified in thinking that lots of different things were responsible. But when you have lots of different cities all showing the exact same thing—a huge and completely unexpected drop in violent crime—does it really make sense that it's happening for a different reason in every city? It might! But that would sure be a monumental coincidence. More likely, there's some single factor underlying the decrease that affected the entire country. In fact, since drops in violent crime were also recorded in Canada during the past two decades, and elsewhere around the world during other time periods, it's probably some worldwide factor. And on that score, gasoline lead reigns supreme. There's really nothing else that persuasively explains a global rise and fall in violent crime that happens at different times in different countries. More on this later.

Republicans Getting Cold Feet on Entitlement Reform

| Thu Nov. 29, 2012 11:02 AM EST

This cracks me up. We all know that in the negotiations over the fiscal cliff, Democrats want some tax hikes and Republicans want some entitlement cuts. But what cuts do Republicans want?

A top Democratic official said talks have stalled on this question since Obama and congressional leaders had their friendly-looking post-election session at the White House. “Republicans want the president to own the whole offer upfront, on both the entitlement and the revenue side, and that’s not going to happen because the president is not going to negotiate with himself,” the official said. “There’s a standoff, and the staff hasn’t gotten anywhere. Rob Nabors [the White House negotiator], has been saying: ‘This is what we want on revenues on the down payment. What’s you guys’ ask on the entitlement side?’ And they keep looking back at us and saying: ‘We want you to come up with that and pitch us.’ That’s not going to happen.”

Well, of course they want the president to make proposals for both sides. Then they can reluctantly agree, and in 2014 run about a billion dollars worth of ads saying that Democrats raised your taxes and cut your Social Security.

This, of course, is yet more evidence that Republicans know perfectly well that cutting entitlements is unpopular. For some reason, however, they've lashed themselves to this particular mast, and now they have to figure out a way to wriggle out from beneath it. Their cunning plan is to make Democrats responsible for all the unpopular proposals and then paint themselves as the protectors of the middle class. But no matter what you think of Obama's negotiating skills, no one's a big enough idiot to agree to that.

Here in the real world, it's time for Republicans to put their cards on the table. You want to cut granny's Medicare? Let's hear your plans. If you want to cut the deficit in the medium term, that also means cutting benefits in the medium term, and that in turn means cutting benefits for current retirees. You can't use the old wheeze about leaving everything alone for everyone over 55.

The blowhard axis of the GOP has been complaining for weeks that Republicans would have won the election if only they'd stuck to Paul Ryan's guns on this stuff instead of muzzling him. Well, now they have a chance to find out. It's time to step up to the plate.

Et Tu, Susan?

| Wed Nov. 28, 2012 11:35 PM EST

The Washington Post reports on the latest in the Republican jihad against Susan Rice:

Even moderate Republican and onetime Rice supporter Sen. Susan Collins (Maine) declined to offer her backing after their 75-minute private session Wednesday....Collins told reporters she was “troubled” that Rice had “decided to play what was essentially a political role at the height of a contentious presidential election campaign” by appearing on five political talk shows to present the administration’s position.

Et tu, Susan? It's deeply depressing that even Susan Collins is endorsing this idiocy, and doing it with such transparent BS. I mean, her complaint is that Rice's mere appearance on the Sunday talk shows was somehow inappropriate? Seriously? She couldn't be bothered to invent anything more plausible than that?

The Post story suggests that nominating Rice "could cost the White House valuable goodwill with Republicans," but honestly, it's hard to see how. If you actually parse what they're saying about Rice, there's literally nothing there. They're simply rephrasing perfectly ordinary actions to make them sound somehow sinister. If even the moderates have decided to go along with this shabby travesty, it means there's not currently even a shred of goodwill among Republicans on this issue. It's hard to see how nominating Rice could reduce that any further.