Kevin Drum - 2012

Fundraising Set to Become a Great Fundraising Issue

| Fri Jan. 20, 2012 2:38 PM EST

Greg Sargent reports on the latest lefty cause:

With unprecedented amounts of cash set to flood the airwaves this year, campaign finance reform advocates have slowly began to coalesce around a far-fetched idea: How about a constitutional amendment to ban big money in politics?

The idea, floated by various left-leaning groups in recent days, is to build a grassroots campaign behind an amendment to reverse Citizens United, which laid the groundwork for the Super PACs that are expected to pump unlimited sums into the 2012 campaign, with untold consequences for our politics. Now that campaign is about to take a new turn: Lefty groups are going to call on President Obama himself to support such a step.

There are two ways to react to this. The first is substantively: would this be a good idea on a public policy level? I'd be shocked if someone could convince me that it was. As near as I can tell, just about every campaign finance reform measure of the modern era has either (a) had no real effect, or (b) backfired, making things objectively worse. The idea that we can predict the effect of yet another proposal well enough to set it in stone in the Constitution strikes me as extremely unlikely.

But then there's the second way to react: is this a great fundraising issue for Democrats? On that score, I'm sure the answer is a big fat Yes. In fact, just as abortion is for the right, it's probably a perfect issue, one that gets everyone riled up and is unlikely to ever go away. Ironically, endorsing a constitutional amendment to change the way campaigns raise money is probably a great way for campaigns to raise money.

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Always Ask Yourself, Compared to What?

| Fri Jan. 20, 2012 1:28 PM EST

Responding to my piece about capital gains tax rates this morning, Matt Yglesias makes a couple of useful points. The first is that there's a big difference between a capital gains tax cut that simply raises the deficit (almost certainly worthless) and a cut that remains deficit neutral because it's offset with something else (possibly modestly worthwhile). His second point is that even if your capital gains cut is deficit neutral, the offset matters:

The politically and theoretically sound alternative is to offset your cut in taxation of investment income with new taxes on either high-end consumption or environmental degradation or both. It's striking, however, that the political entrepreneurs promoting low levels of taxation of investment income never propose these options and seem generally unconcerned with the entire question of offsets. It's enough to make you question their sincerity! A path to an increased national savings rate over the long-term that opens with a gigantic increase in public sector debt doesn't make any sense, and the fact that this is the strategy they keep promoting is surely on the list of reasons that their claims are so hard to verify in the data.

Without writing a humongous post about this, it's worth keeping in mind that this is an example of the public policy question you should always ask yourself whenever anything is proposed: compared to what? A capital gains tax cut, like any other policy proposal, doesn't happen in a vacuum. So even if you're convinced that it might have a positive effect, that's not enough. How big an effect? And how does that effect compare to, say, a cut in the payroll tax? Or the personal income tax? Likewise, if you want to be deficit neutral, how does a cap gains cut paired with spending cuts compare to a cap gains cut paired with a carbon tax to make up the revenue?

Hauling out an Economics 101 argument is almost never enough to shed much light on any public policy problem that's controversial enough to be interesting. Will a tax cut incentivize certain behavior? Sure, probably. But how much? If the effect is small, does it get swamped by other things? And how does it compare to alternate proposals? Unless you can get halfway plausible answers to those things, you're just being sold snake oil.

The Bad News From Afghanistan Just Keeps Rolling In

| Fri Jan. 20, 2012 1:08 PM EST

The latest from Afghanistan:

President Nicolas Sarkozy of France suspended military operations as part of the American-led coalition in Afghanistan on Friday and said he was considering an early pullout of his nation’s forces after a man in Afghan Army uniform shot and killed four French soldiers....The four French service members were killed and a number were wounded on Friday when a gunman wearing an Afghan National Army uniform turned his weapon on them, according to an Afghan police official in Kapisa Province in eastern Afghanistan where the episode occurred.

This isn't an isolated incident, either. The Guardian reports on a recently completed Pentagon study:

Mutual mistrust and contempt between local and foreign forces in Afghanistan that often borders on hatred is one of the main reasons why Afghan troops increasingly turn their guns on their Nato comrades, a damning report has found. The research, commissioned by the US military, said American soldiers enrage their Afghan colleagues with what the report describes as extreme arrogance, bullying and "crude behaviour".

It also heavily criticised as "profoundly intellectually dishonest" the Nato claims that the killing of alliance troops by Afghan soldiers is extremely rare. The data suggests incidents such as the killing on Friday of four French soldiers "reflect a rapidly growing systemic homicide threat (a magnitude of which may be unprecedented between 'allies' in modern military history)"....According to behavioural scientist Jeffrey Bordin's report, the number of attacks have been growing, with 26 incidents of killings or attempted killings since early 2007. Those attacks led to the deaths of 58 foreign personnel.

The military has dismissed the study, saying it "suffered from irrelevant generalisations, narrow sample sets, unprofessional rhetoric and sensationalism." Maybe so. But these kinds of studies, often scorned in pretty similar language, have usually turned out to be more accurate than the happy talk from commanders on the ground.

It's always worth keeping in mind, even though I know this is obvious, that we're not on Plan B here. We executed that one around 2005 or so. We're currently about on Plan F, and if it's working better than Plans A through E, the improvements are pretty marginal. As the old saying goes: Fool me once, shame on you; fool me six times, shame on me. As near as I can tell, though, the Republican candidates pretty unanimously want to move on to Plan G, and the military has given plenty of hints that they'll be proposing exactly that sometime in the next year or so.

Not to put too fine a point on it, but if we fall for this yet again, we're collective idiots. Drawing down from Afghanistan will be no cakewalk, and the results will almost certainly be lethal. But it's past time that we acknowledged we've done about as much as we can. It's time to come home.

Michael Kinsley's Inflation Demons Are Still Haunting Him

| Fri Jan. 20, 2012 12:30 PM EST

Two years ago Michael Kinsley wrote a piece in the Atlantic explaining that he was worried about inflation:

For this, I was widely ridiculed, and I’d like to take this opportunity to claim vindication. That is, I’d like to —  but I can’t. Inflation (CPI) has been creeping up the past couple of years —  from less than 2 percent to more than 3 percent  —  but that’s still pretty low. Nevertheless, I double down: Barring a miracle, there will be a fierce storm of inflation sometime in the next few years and it will wipe out a big chunk of the national debt, along with the debts of individual citizens, and the savings of others. 

One reason I say this is that the arguments on the other side have shifted. It used to be, “It’s not gonna happen — so don’t worry about it.” Now it’s, “You know, a moderate dose of inflation would be no bad thing. So don’t worry about it.”

The last time around I sort of semi-defended Kinsley. This time around I'm just perplexed. His original piece appeared in March 2010. Here is Paul Krugman a month earlier praising a suggestion from IMF chief economist Olivier Blanchard that the world could use a bit of additional inflation:

I’m not that surprised that Olivier should think that; I am, however, somewhat surprised that the IMF is letting him say that under its auspices. In any case, I very much agree.

I would add, however, that there’s another case for a higher inflation rate....[blah blah blah]....So yes, let’s have modestly higher inflation. Alas, Ben Bernanke — at least when speaking publicly — doesn’t agree. And I can only imagine what Trichet would say.

And here is Ryan Avent at the same time, not only agreeing but pointing out that Kenneth Rogoff, Greg Mankiw, Scott Sumner, and Brad DeLong all agree too. So this time I can't even semi-defend Kinsley. Plenty of economists were making the case for higher inflation well before he wrote his original article. The arguments haven't shifted, he just never noticed them before.

Why Mitt Romney Should Pay Higher Taxes

| Fri Jan. 20, 2012 7:00 AM EST

Mitt Romney (center) poses with colleagues from the private equity firm Bain Capital.

Mitt Romney, as all the world knows, made his fortune heading up a private equity firm called Bain Capital. As a result, he pays low, low income tax rates. "Probably closer to 15 percent than anything," he told reporters on Tuesday. That's a pretty sweet deal, but it's all perfectly legal. Most of Romney's income comes in the form of capital gains and carried interest, which have been taxed at 15 percent ever since the Bush tax cuts went into effect a decade ago.

So it's a good time to get a little wonky and ask why capital gains and carried interest are taxed at only 15 percent, while ordinary labor income is taxed at rates as high as 35 percent. If you're the cynical sort, you think the answer is simple: Rich people make lots of their money via capital gains and carried interest, and the Republican Party is dedicated to making the lives of rich people easy and prosperous. So they've made sure those tax rates are low.

Maybe so. But there's an official, noncynical answer too: Capital gains are profits from investments, and a high level of investment is good for the economy. Low tax rates on capital gains encourage investment and therefore benefit the entire economy.

But is this true? If it were, you'd expect to see some kind of long-term correlation between capital gains rates and the total amount of capital gains income. The lower the rates, the more the income. Let's roll the tape:

Do you see a correlation? I don't. What you see are two things. First, when people know rates are about to go up, they sell their assets quickly to beat the tax man and take advantage of the current rates. You can see that in 1968 and 1986. Second, capital gains skyrocket during investment booms. You can see that during the dot-com bubble of the late '90s and the housing bubble of the aughts. When you remove those artifacts, there's pretty much nothing left. No matter what the tax rate is, the level of capital gains pokes along at about the same rate. The same thing is true if you lag the results by five years, and you can see a similar result here, in a chart that compares capital gains rates to total investment levels in the US economy. There's simply no correlation. All taxes have deadweight costs, and it's likely that capital gains taxes have some impact on the economy, but all the evidence, both in the US and internationally, suggests that it's pretty modest. As the Congressional Research Service concluded in a study a couple of years ago, capital gains tax cuts "are unlikely to have much effect on the long-term level of output or the path to the long-run level of output (i.e., economic growth)."

So what about carried interest? What's that all about? Carried interest is a feature of the way partnerships are taxed, and private equity funds are essentially partnerships. In a partnership, it's frequently the case that one person puts up the money and another person manages the business. Both partners get equity in the enterprise: The former gets ordinary, garden variety equity and the latter gets "sweat equity." When the enterprise is sold off (hopefully at a profit), both are taxed at capital gains rates.

Bain Capital acted as a managing partner in most of its transactions, so this was a pretty good deal for them. After all, most of us who work as managers, even if our pay comes in the form of a bonus that's based on the profitability of the company, have to pay ordinary income tax rates. That's because this kind of work is known as "labor." But if you manage a private equity fund, that exact same kind of work is defined as sweat equity and gets taxed at capital gains rates.

This is pretty hard to defend. If it walks like a duck and quacks like a duck, it's a duck. Except in this one case, where it's sweat equity. There's really not much justification for it.

So this is where we end up. Mitt Romney pays low tax rates on his capital gains because this is supposed to encourage him to invest his money. But it turns out that it doesn't. And he pays low tax rates on his carried interest because his job of managing companies that other people own was conveniently redefined as sweat equity and therefore treated as capital gains. It's a nice deal for the rich, who get nearly all of the benefit of these policies, but neither of them is really defensible. It's one thing for Mitt Romney to have gotten wealthy running Bain Capital. Good for him. But he ought to pay the same taxes on his earnings as the rest of us.

Mitt Romney's Tax Returns

| Fri Jan. 20, 2012 12:28 AM EST

Jeez. Mitt Romney still doesn't have a clear, clean answer about which tax returns he's going to release and when he's going to release them? What the hell has Team Romney been up to? I think there's been a glitch in the Romneytron 9000 programming somewhere.

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Can Mitt Romney Really Repeal Obamacare?

| Thu Jan. 19, 2012 7:15 PM EST

Tyler Cowen isn't so sure that Mitt Romney will repeal Obamacare if he's elected president:

I expect Romney to claim he has repealed ACA, but in fact he will change five aspects of the law and cement the rest of it in place, albeit in a less progressive manner and with lower Medicaid expenditures. (Outright repeal actually would not be easy, not to mention filibuster issues.) He knows he doesn’t have any other “right-wing health care plan” in his back pocket, won’t be willing to restore the status quo ex ante, and he will be willing to take the “Tea Party knock on the chin” very early on in his term, hoping to repair the fence later. Ultimately letting the issue fester doesn’t help him, and he is smart enough to realize that.

I'm not so sure about this. The question isn't so much what Romney truly wants to do, it's what a Republican Congress wants to do and whether Romney would actively oppose them. My guess is that a Republican Congress will be pretty single-minded about repealing as much of Obamacare as they possibly can and that Romney won't stand in their way.

But how much can they repeal? That's a good question, so here's the best case scenario for liberals. Republicans can use the reconciliation process to repeal any part of Obamacare that's budget related, and that means they can repeal a big chunk of Obamacare with only 51 votes. But they can't use reconciliation to repeal pieces of the law that are strictly regulatory in nature. For that they need to use regular order, and that means they'll need 60 votes to overcome a Democratic filibuster, which they probably won't be able to get.

So which parts are purely regulatory? There are several, but the two most important are guaranteed issue and community rating. The first means that insurance companies are required to sell insurance to anyone who wants it, and the second means that they have to charge everyone the same price. (With a few specific exceptions, like designated higher rates based on age.) So what happens if they repeal most of Obamacare but not those two parts? That's a little tricky to answer.

One possibility is that insurance companies go ballistic. If they're required to sell insurance to everyone, even the chronically ill, at the same price, then they'll soon go bankrupt as sick people flood into the system. So they'll demand that things like the individual mandate and the subsidies be restored, and at some point Republicans will cave in and do it. Obamacare will be crippled, but not completely dead.

The other possibility is that insurance companies won't care much. For one thing, the number of people who (a) have expensive preexisting conditions, (b) don't have employer insurance, and (c) can afford individual insurance in the first place, is probably a fairly small group. What's more, with the help of a friendly administration, friendly state regulations, and friendly court rulings, insurance companies can probably find ways to turn down people for coverage despite the law, and they'll also find stealthy ways to squeeze more money out of certain patients via the use of surcharges or rebates or non-cash benefits or somesuch. They'll be annoyed at having to do this, but it won't be that big a deal, and most health insurance companies don't care about the individual market all that much anyway. They'll live through it, they won't pressure Republicans to do much of anything, and Obamacare will be history.

If that happens, Harold Pollack argues that Republicans will come to regret their actions:

Because Obama spent the first year of his presidency enacting health reform, he and his party came to “own” many things Americans don’t much like about our health care system that have little to do with the specifics of the ACA. Right now, if patients dislike restrictive mammography guidelines, they can blame “Obamacare.” If physicians dislike aggressive cost control or their increasing difficulties practicing outside large care systems, they blame “Obamacare.” Governors who don’t like rising Medicaid costs blame “Obamacare.” Employers who don’t like the rising costs of health coverage blame “Obamacare” too. (These patients, physicians, governors, and employers are wrong to blame the new law, but that’s another matter.)

If the Republicans break health reform, they risk owning the results. And there will still be much to dislike in American health care. Little of what people dislike in our health care system will be improved by curtailing or overturning the ACA. Indeed, the one concrete consequence of overturning the ACA would be to consign tens of millions of people to the ranks of the uninsured. Writing in the New England Journal of Medicine, Harvard health policy researcher (and former Obama administration official) David Blumenthal predicts that if Republicans overturn the ACA next year, “by 2020, 20% of Americans may be uninsured, even as 20% of our gross domestic product is devoted to health care.”

Republicans have never shown any concern about the uninsured in the past, so it's not clear to me that this would really cause them any heartburn. And I imagine they could change the subject pretty quickly anyway. But it's a thought.

Bottom line: If Mitt Romney becomes president, Obamacare will either be fully repealed or almost fully repealed. And even if repeal isn't 100% complete in legal terms, there's a pretty good chance that in real-life terms it will be. Republicans might keep a few pieces of Obamacare that are both popular and fairly inconsequential, but that's about it. For all practical purposes, Obamacare will be dead, and it will be another couple of decades before we get another chance to seriously address heathcare reform in America.

Quote of the Day: Huge CEO Paydays Are Really For the Benefit of the Little People

| Thu Jan. 19, 2012 3:33 PM EST

From a "senior banker," explaining to the Financial Times why the bailed-out-and-still-taxpayer-owned Royal Bank of Scotland is determined to pay its CEO a huge bonus in the face of official disapproval:

This person defended Mr Hester as a “highly credible banker”. If the chief executive turned down his bonus it would “demoralise” staff members and would send a signal that they now effectively “worked for an arm of the civil service or a utility, rather than for a bank”.

Roger that. Wouldn't want to demoralize all those tellers and branch managers who will probably break out in a North Korean-esque hail of tears if Stephen Hester receives a bonus that's a pence less than £1.5 million. Probably best just to keep shoveling money out the door as always.

Via Keith Humphreys.

Chart of the Day: Republicans Don't Trust Anyone (Except Fox News)

| Thu Jan. 19, 2012 2:35 PM EST

Public Policy Polling is out with their 3rd annual TV news trust poll. Among Republicans, as the chart on the right shows, the shape of the river is simple: they don't trust anyone except Fox News, who they adore. These numbers are spreads, with NBC, for example, garnering 17% trust vs. 69% distrust. Fox News, conversely, garners 73% trust vs. 17% distrust.

Well, you say, maybe this just means that trust in the media is really low these days? Nope. Democrats and Independents may not trust Fox, but they do trust everyone else. The percentages vary, with more skepticism toward some outlets than others, but what non-Republicans don't do is simply dismiss television news en masse as a bunch of lying corporate shills. Paul Waldman explains:

While I was in the car yesterday I turned to a conservative talk radio station, which I recommend all liberals do from time to time. The host, whom I didn't recognize, brought up some innocuous piece of news reporting that appeared in the Politico. As you know if you care about these things, the Politico is a complicated media entity. On one hand, they employ a lot of reporters and they sometimes break interesting stories. On the other hand, they're almost a parody of the inside dope-obsessed Washington media, which finds the question of whether Eric Cantor's press secretary and John Boehner's press secretary are feuding far more compelling than, say, the question of what effects cuts in Medicaid would have on struggling Americans. But when this conservative talk show host mentioned the Politico, he found it necessary to refer to it as "the left-wing rag the Politico."

Here in Washington, almost no one in either party is crazy enough to think that the Politico is actually a left-wing rag, an ideologically-motivated news outlet whose purpose is to advance the liberal cause. And whether this talk show host's listeners know or care much about it in particular isn't my point. My point is this: If you are a consumer of conservative media, you get constant reminders — every day, multiple times a day — that you absolutely must not believe anything you hear or read in any news outlet that is not explicitly conservative.

Everybody — yes, everybody — is subject to confirmation bias. We all get the warm fuzzies when someone tells us something we want to hear, and we resist listening to people who tell us things we don't want to hear. But there's still a difference. As Paul says, "Conservatives and liberals are not equally prone to huddle within their self-reinforcing cocoons." Liberals don't immediately dismiss as a conspiracy everything they hear from the news media that doesn't fit their preconceived notions. They might downplay unwelcome news or even ignore it, but they're still willing to listen to it. Increasingly, conservatives simply aren't. They want to believe the world is a certain way, and they're just flatly not willing to countenance anything that might challenge those beliefs. This is not a healthy development for a modern democracy.

UPDATE: Chart edited to show the correct figure for the Fox News trust/distrust difference (56%, not 73%). Thanks to reader Dan H. for catching the error.

Somebody's Looking Out For Mitt Romney

| Thu Jan. 19, 2012 1:59 PM EST

Jonathan Chait:

Mitt Romney’s run of luck during the Republican nominating race is beginning to defy belief. Begin with the fact that Rick Santorum turns out to have won the Iowa caucuses. Finding this out now is approximately 0.001 percent as valuable as having it announced the night of the caucuses. There was an old Fed Ex commercial depicting an aging pool cleaner suddenly discovering a 20-year-old acceptance letter from Harvard he had never received, and imagining the life he could have had. That man is Santorum. He has to wonder if the Iowa vote counters were gay.

What's equally remarkable is that even with Romney's incredible string of good luck, he's still having trouble sealing the deal.

At least, that's the conventional wisdom. But is it really true? Not counting Ron Paul, who will stay in the race to the bitter end because he was never really running for president in the first place, the GOP race is already down to three candidates. In 2008, we still had five major candidates remaining at this point. So Romney is doing at least as well as McCain did. If Gingrich and Santorum drop out by the end of February, things will have unfolded almost identically to 2008.

So maybe Romney isn't quite the pariah that he's been made out to be. But he's still incredibly lucky.