Kevin Drum - 2012

Ron Paul Is Not an Ally Worth Having

| Wed Jan. 4, 2012 3:56 PM EST

A couple of days ago I argued that, if anything, Ron Paul is such a profoundly toxic messenger that his support for a non-interventionist foreign policy probably does the cause more harm than good. Daniel Larison isn't convinced:

The amusing conceit in all of this is that Paul has been or will be bad for non-interventionism. Far fewer people paid any attention to these ideas just five years ago. Non-interventionism has gone from being a more or less marginal position to one that is starting to receive a lot more attention and at least a little serious consideration. It’s impossible to ignore that this wouldn’t have happened had it not been for Paul’s last two presidential campaigns.

Look: I'll concede up front that it's not possible to know for sure what impact Ron Paul is having on public views toward non-interventionism. But come on. It's true that the American public is less enamored of war these days than it used to be, but the obvious reason for this can be summed up in two words: Afghanistan and Iraq. Americans are more skeptical of military adventurism than they were ten years ago because the shock of 9/11 has worn off and we've gone through two spectacularly disastrous foreign wars. Ron Paul has played almost no role in this at all. Hell, even Iraq and Afghanistan themselves probably haven't had much effect. We won't know for sure about this until some kind of serious military action rears its head again, but here's a guess: if Iran makes even the slightest overt military move to block the Strait of Hormuz, the American public will be every bit as keen for blood as they've ever been.1 And frankly, that's probably about as true among Ron Paul's supporters as everyone else. They've always cared mostly about his economic crankery and his opposition to social welfare, not his foreign policy views.

If you're a libertarian, I understand that you won't agree about Ron Paul's general toxicity. That's why my post on Monday was addressed primarily to lefties. For us, even before we learned about his newletters, it should have been crystal clear that he was no cuddly little teddy bear. He's a destructive, insanely-far-right crank, and anything we do to give him a bigger audience is bad for liberalism and bad for the country. After all, let's say that you were, for unimpeachably progressive reasons, really and truly devoted to the cause of federalism. Would you be happy that George Wallace was running for president? Of course not. Because you get the whole package or nothing, and anything that makes George Wallace more popular is bad for the country. Ditto for Ron Paul.

If you want to advance the cause of a less interventionist foreign policy, you need to find a way to persuade the American public to agree with you. Ron Paul doesn't do that. He's never done that. He's such a stone libertarian that he literally doesn't know the language to do it. Because of this, giving him a bigger spotlight does little for the cause of a saner foreign policy. At the same time, it does plenty for less sanity everywhere else because you don't get to control where the spotlight falls. Politics may make for strange bedfellows, but there are limits. There are some allies that aren't worth having.

1I should add that I'm not trying to pretend to be something I'm not here. I'm in favor of a less interventionist foreign policy, a view that has plenty of voices these days not named Ron Paul, but I'm not a hardcore non-interventionist like Paul. If Iran seriously tried to mine the Strait of Hormuz, for example, I'd fully expect the U.S. Navy to put a stop to it, even if that meant sinking a few Iranian vessels.

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Rick Santorum, Friend of the Little Guy

| Wed Jan. 4, 2012 2:06 PM EST

Matt Yglesias examines Rick Santorum's 12-point tax plan:

It is actually true that this means Santorum stands out from the GOP pack in expressing a non-zero level of concern for the after-tax income of low-income people. Fully one of the twelve planks of his tax agenda would help an economically struggling family, which is more than I believe Mitt Romney or any of the others have mustered.

Not bad for a modern Republican! In fact, I think you could even made a plausible case for two of Santorum's planks (#5 and #6). That makes him practically a socialist. What's more, if the Tax Policy Center ever scores his plan, I suspect that it would come out slightly less staggeringly plutocratic than any of the others they've scored. Rich people would probably see their taxes cut by no more than a third or so. What a mushball.

How Do You Solve a Problem Like Mitt Romney?

| Wed Jan. 4, 2012 1:54 PM EST

Mitt Romney has a win in Iowa under his belt and is now headed to the friendlier environs of New Hampshire, where he's got a good chance of all but wrapping up the Republican nomination. Turns out, though, that this poses a problem for the Obama campaign: they aren't sure yet how best to trash the guy:

President Obama and his campaign aides are facing a conundrum as they decide how to tarnish the man they see as their likely opponent in the battle ahead.

Do they go the flip-flopper route? Or do they go the out-of-touch, protector-of-Wall-Street route? 

Hmmm. Today's shiny new conventional wisdom is that the GOP primary campaign has already forced Romney so far to the right that he'll have trouble tacking to the center for the general election. This is nonsense. The fact is that Romney has reserved almost all of his most extreme rhetoric for laughably over-the-top denunciations of Barack Obama, and that's not really a problem for him. By contrast, most of his issue positions have remained relatively tolerable. The truth is that Romney is unusually well positioned to moderate his image by summer, which is when people actually start paying attention.

I don't think the Republican primary season is going to last nearly as long as most people seem to think. Bachmann has already dropped out, Huntsman is going nowhere, Paul is a novelty candidate, Perry is fatally wounded and may leave the race soon, and Gingrich looks all set to self-destruct in typically bitter, spectacular fashion. That leaves Santorum. I guess it's barely possible that if, say, Bachmann and Perry both drop out and endorse Santorum, he might give Romney a good run. But I doubt it. Santorum is just like all the others: a weak candidate who's going to wilt as soon as the spotlight is on him. He's avoided serious attacks so far simply because no one really took him seriously, but does anyone doubt that there's a huge trainload of highly effective negative advertising that Romney can unload on him whenever he wants to? I mean, come on. This is Rick Santorum.

I'll be surprised if the GOP primary race goes much beyond the end of February, and I'll be shocked if Super Tuesday on March 6 doesn't end it completely. This means that the Republican base will have six months to resign themselves to their fate and come to the conclusion that Romney is the kindest, bravest, warmest, most wonderful human being ever to run for president. And they will. When Job 1 is beating the anti-Christ, learning to love Mitt Romney will be a piece of cake.

So what does this mean for Team Obama? My guess: the flip-flopper charge probably won't get much traction. It's mostly a problem for conservatives, who don't fully trust that Romney is one of them, but by the time summer rolls around they're going to be his most fire-breathing supporters. They'll have long since decided to forgive and forget, and independents won't care that much in the first place as long as Romney seems halfway reasonable in his current incarnation. It's possible that Obama can do both — Romney is a flip-flopper and a right-wing nutcase! — but if he has to choose, my guess is that he should forget about the flip-flopping and simply do everything he can to force Romney into the wingnut conservative camp. That'll be his big weakness when Labor Day rolls around.

Obama Plans Recess Appointment of Richard Cordray: It's a Good Idea, But I Want to See the Legal Brief

| Wed Jan. 4, 2012 11:48 AM EST

Apparently President Obama has decided that playing patty cake with Republican senators is no longer a winning proposition, and he now plans to make a recess appointment of Richard Cordray to head up the new Consumer Financial Protection Bureau despite the fact that the Senate is technically in a "pro forma session" and hasn't recessed. Politically, this is pretty defensible: Senate Republicans have refused to allow a vote on Cordray not because of any problems with Cordray himself, but because they simply want to prevent the CFPB from functioning. They're opposed to any CFPB head. Since the CFPB was created by a vote of Congress and the signature of the president, this is little more than modern-day nullification.

But even if this is politically defensible, is it also legally defensible? The Wall Street Journal reports:

White House attorneys have concluded they have the legal authority to make a recess appointment despite Republican efforts to block the move, Democrats said Tuesday, and administration officials say they reserve the option to install Richard Cordray as head of the new Consumer Financial Protection Bureau without Senate approval.

....The White House has concluded that it can make the appointment even if the Senate has not formally recessed, said one Democrat familiar with White House thinking. “They have decided no one can stop them.”

This all sounds fine to me, since I think the pro forma sessions are nothing more than a sham. But I also hope that Obama makes his legal reasoning public. This is, after all, a unilateral declaration of expanded executive power, and we've had way too many of those in recent years based on shoddy legal justifications that were kept secret. Obama's decision may end up in court, where his legal reasoning will become public regardless, but I hope he doesn't wait for that. If White House lawyers have written a brief justifying Cordray's appointment, let's make it public and allow everyone to see it.

My New Diet Plan: Always Eat Alone

| Wed Jan. 4, 2012 10:51 AM EST

Via Andrew Sullivan, we learn this from the good folks at New Scientist:

Researchers at Georgia State University in Atlanta have shown that group size dramatically affects the number of calories consumed. If you are with one other person, you will eat 35 per cent more calories than if you dine alone. In a group of eight, you're looking at a whopping 90 per cent increase.

Really? If I'm in a group of eight I'm likely to eat twice as much as if I eat alone? That seems spectacularly unlikely. Can someone please do some research for me and report back on whether this is really true? The underlying study here is from 1992, and surely there have been followups since. Thanks!

Romney Wins the Iowa Bowl!

| Wed Jan. 4, 2012 2:16 AM EST

It looks like Mitt Romney has won the Iowa Bowl in triple overtime by a margin of 8 votes over a resurgent Rick Santorum. Very exciting! So now we have a new anti-Romney who will suddenly learn the dangers of being in the spotlight and having voters actually get to know him; a promise from a bitter Newt Gingrich that the gloves are off and he's now going to crush the Mittster and sow the smoking remains of his campaign with salt; the apparent end of Rick Perry; and a few days of chuckleheaded nonsense from people who should know better that Ron Paul owes a big part of his third-place success to his anti-war message and might now ride the burgeoning isolationist youth vote in the Republican Party to victory. (Actual reality: Ron Paul owes his success to his usual combination of economic crankery and fanatic opposition to social welfare in every possible form.) 

I have my own theory about Rick Santorum, though, and here it is: he surged because there were no debates in the final three weeks before Iowa. Santorum is possibly the whiniest, least appealing debate candidate I've ever seen in my life, and I figure he lost a few thousand votes every time he went on the air. So the calendar helped him a lot. Unfortunately, there's a debate coming up this Saturday, which should be perfectly positioned to allow the voters of New Hampshire to remind themselves that they really don't want to see this guy on their TV for the next four years. That's bad luck for Santorum, but them's the breaks.

UPDATE: Dave Weigel points out something interesting: in 2008, when conservatives were supposedly down in the dumps, about 102,000 Republicans showed up to vote in Iowa. (The balance of the votes were independents and crossover Democrats.) This year, when conservatives are supposedly psyched to crush the demon Obama, about 91,000 Republicans showed up to vote. What happened to the enthusiasm gap?

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How the Rich Get Richer

| Tue Jan. 3, 2012 9:41 PM EST

While we're all waiting for the Iowa straw poll to finish up, here are some new income inequality charts for you to munch on. These come from a new CRS report, and the first one shows where most of us get our income. For 80% of us, the answer is: almost all of it comes from ordinary wages and salaries. We get a grand total of 0.7% of our income from dividends and capital gains.

For the top 0.1%, it's flipped around. They get less than 20% of their income from ordinary wages and more than half from dividends and capital gains. So when Republicans eagerly insist on reducing or eliminating taxes on dividends and capital gains, this chart shows you who benefits. Most of us get nada, but the very rich benefit handsomely.

Got that? Onward, then. This next chart comes from Jared Bernstein, based on the same CRS report, and it shows how various kinds of income contributed to growing income inequality between 1996 and 2006. Overall, America's Gini coefficient, which measures income inequality, increased by 0.057 points between 1996 and 2006. Of that increase, most comes from dividends and capital gains, which became a higher percentage of the pay of the rich, and taxes, which went down a lot for rich people.

There's more detail at the link, but you get the picture. For the rich, the amount of their income that comes from capital gains went up, while the taxes they paid on their capital gains went down. As a result, income inequality zoomed ever higher. Pretty sweet deal, no?

Update: How Iowa Really Works

| Tue Jan. 3, 2012 2:52 PM EST

A reader writes in to explain how the Iowa caucuses really work:

What’s going on in Iowa is that four or five election cycles ago, Republicans decided that the best way to deal with the precinct caucuses for maximum media impact was to simply hold a straw poll at the start of the caucuses and report that to the press as the result. After that, the hard-core insiders would hang around for the actual precinct caucus — the delegate selection phase. The straw poll is non-binding, but there’s kind of a conspiracy of the press and the state party to report it as the result because it comes in earlier and the results are clearer.

I didn't know that. Maybe I should have, but I didn't. That Des Moines Register piece that I linked to earlier, for example, describes the process this way:

  1. Pick a candidate.
  2. Votes tallied.
  3. Elect delegates.
  4. Elect alternates.

Tricky! I didn't quite catch that "Votes tallied" really had nothing to do with "Elect delegates." But apparently it doesn't. You cast your vote, the tally gets reported to the press, and then if you feel like sticking around to elect delegates you can do that. Or not. But your vote doesn't really matter unless you do.

Pretty good system for choosing a leader of the free world, isn't it?

Goldman Sachs Is Bearish on Oil

| Tue Jan. 3, 2012 1:09 PM EST

Feeling a little bullish about the economy? Settle down! I don't know if this forecast is new, or if it's the same one I wrote about last year, but the oil analysts at Goldman Sachs think we're very close to reaching our maximum oil pumping capacity again after a few years of looseness caused by the recession. Via Jared Bernstein, Goldman's chart is on the right. So what does it mean when oil demand starts to bump up against supply? This:

High prices, as bad as they are for an economy addicted to cheap oil, aren't the worst prospect facing us. The real problem is spare capacity....Twenty years ago, OPEC had spare production capacity of about 15 million bpd. A decade ago that had dropped to 5.5 million bpd. [Today], spare capacity has dropped almost to zero.

....In other words, it's likely that we're now in a permanent state of near zero spare capacity, which in turn will lead to an increasingly unstable world. As we enter an era in which even Saudi Arabia has no spare capacity to smooth out supply disruptions elsewhere in the world, any blip in supply, whether from political unrest, terrorism, or merely unforeseen natural events, will cause prices to carom wildly. A world with $100 per barrel oil is bad enough, but a world in which a single pipeline meltdown could cause prices to skyrocket to $300 per barrel for a few months and then back down is far worse.

More here. This was all written back in 2005, when $100 oil seemed shockingly high. Today it's the new normal. What's worse, though, is that when the global economy expands, we hit our maximum pumping capacity and prices start to oscillate quickly upwards. Result: a global recession, which reduces oil consumption a bit. A few years later, we repeat the process. More on that here.

Plus, as Jared points out, we also have Europe to worry about, as well as persistently low labor force participation at home. 2012 may be a good year compared to 2011, but that's grading on a curve. Thanks to a combination of really hard problems and really stupid politicians, our recovery is likely to remain sluggish for a long time.

Quote of the Day: How Many Ways Can You Say "Crazy"?

| Tue Jan. 3, 2012 12:10 PM EST

From George Packer, explaining why politics is covered as spectacle these days:

How many times and ways can you say that the Republican Party has descended into unreality and extremism before you lose your viewers and readers?

In my case, I imagine the answer is "several thousand." And if I kept up Friday Catblogging, I'd probably keep a fair chunk of my audience even at that.

Still, Packer has a point. Hell, it actually makes my blogging life sort of miserable. Nearly every day I face the same decision: do I pretend to take Republican crankery seriously and write a few chart-laden posts about why they're wrong, or should I instead write a couple of rants about how lunacy has become mainstream and can hardly be fought with yet more wonkery and tedious empirical evidence?

Obviously, I usually opt for the former. But not without qualms just about every single day.