Kevin Drum - January 2013

Objective Facts Are More Important Than Personal Intrigue

| Tue Jan. 8, 2013 10:56 AM PST

Andrew Sprung is frustrated that John Boehner is getting some mainstream traction for his sob story about how he tried really, really hard to accomodate President Obama in the fiscal cliff negotiations, but Obama was just a brick wall who treated everything like it was his way or the highway:

In truth, Obama in the course of grand bargain negotiations reduced his never-enough ten-year revenue targets from $1.6 to 1.4 to 1.2 trillion, raised the threshold for income tax rate hikes from his long-sought $250k/household to $400k (ultimately $450k), put chained-CPI on the table as a means of slowing Social Security spending, and proposed some $600 billion in Medicare spending cuts over ten years — to which Boehner responded by blowing up the negotiations with his ridiculous Plan B.

Andrew has much more on this, but at heart I think it's a demonstration of how reporters too often let tales of personal intrigue trump objective facts. Because in this case, the objective facts are really pretty clear. Boehner never once put forward a detailed plan, while Obama did repeatedly. And as Andrew says, Obama's position moved in Boehner's direction every time, with his revenue ask going down and his spending cuts going up.

In the end, though, Boehner just couldn't make a deal. This isn't because Obama was an arrogant bastard who never tried to understand their differences, it's because a majority of Boehner's caucus simply wasn't willing to agree to a tax hike of any kind and Boehner wasn't willing to back a plan that didn't have majority GOP support. There's really not much more to it than that. Boehner and Obama may well be tired of each other, but that's not why their negotiations routinely fall apart. It's because Boehner has no control over his own caucus.

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Chuck Hagel Is Shocking Evidence That Obama Disagrees With Republicans

| Tue Jan. 8, 2013 9:51 AM PST

Jonah Goldberg wonders aloud why President Obama has nominated Chuck Hagel to be secretary of defense:

Is it a bridge across the partisan divide? Or is it an "in-your-face" nomination (South Carolina Sen. Lindsey Graham's words) aimed at eliciting a fight with Republicans?

At least from the perspective of nearly everyone on the right, it's the latter. Whether it's payback for the scuttled non-nomination of Susan Rice to be secretary of State or whether it's simply of a piece with Obama's efforts to divide and conquer the GOP that were on display throughout the "fiscal cliff" negotiations, the consensus in much of conservative Washington is that Obama is making this nomination at least in part out of spite.

Fascinating! Apparently presidents are now required to nominate only people whom the minority party approves of wholeheartedly. If he doesn't, the reason just has to be pure spite.

Well, politics is everywhere, and I'm sure Obama had some political motivations for his choice. For example, maybe he wanted to remind the country that, once upon a time, the Republican Party included traditional conservatives like Hagel, not just tea party lunatics. But guess what? Hagel is a longtime ally and advisor. He's on Obama's side on most important defense issues. I know how ridiculous this must sound, but it's just barely possible that Obama nominated Hagel because he likes the guy, respects his views, and thinks he'll do a good job of running the Pentagon and implementing Obama's policy agenda. Plus, he probably figures that presidents ought to get to choose their own cabinet.

If Republicans want to go to the mattresses to fight Hagel, that's their choice. "Divide and conquer" only works in this case if the GOP continues its hysterical insistence that Hagel is some kind of raging anti-Semite who will destroy America's ability to defend itself. If that's the road they choose, they have no one but themselves to blame if they end up being split down the middle.

Platinum Coins and the Fever Swamp

| Tue Jan. 8, 2013 9:07 AM PST

Atrios thinks we should mint a $1 trillion platinum coin:

I remain baffled by the resistance. It's just a gimmicky — but legal — way to get around the debt ceiling nonsense. It won't cause inflation. It doesn't allow B. Barry Bamz to buy a trillion dollars worth of bling. And it can be undone the instant new bonds can be sold.

I remain baffled by the bafflement. No, it won't cause inflation, it won't allow Obama to buy anything he wants, and it can be undone as soon as new debt is authorized. So what? Like it or not, the debt ceiling is legal. Congress has the power of the purse. On the other hand, using a ridiculous loophole in a statute about commemorative and bullion coins in order to evade the debt limit isn't legal. Seriously, folks: just forget it. I know I'll never have to pay up on a bet over this since it will never be tested, but this would go against Obama 9-0 if it ever made it to the Supreme Court.

It's time to get a grip and leave the fever swamp thinking to the tea party. This whole thing is embarrassing. It will never happen; it's an exercise in executive overreach that liberals are supposedly opposed to; and it would never make it past a judge. If you really want to stop debt ceiling hostage taking in the future, the way to do it is to make Republicans pay a political price for it. That will stop them. The platinum coin is just a distraction from doing the real work of making Republicans pay for their recklessness.

David Brooks is Too Pessimistic

| Mon Jan. 7, 2013 10:54 PM PST

David Brooks says that spiraling Medicare costs, which the American public shows no willingness to rein in, are going to inexorably squeeze out other programs over the next couple of decades:

Advocates for children, education and the poor don’t even try to defend their programs by lobbying for cutbacks in Medicare. They know that given the choice, voters and politicians care more about middle-class seniors than about poor children.

So far, defense budgets have not been squeezed by the Medicare vice. But that is about to change....As the federal government becomes a health care state, there will have to be a generation of defense cuts that overwhelm anything in recent history.

This, he says, is why Obama has nominated Chuck Hagel to be defense secretary. Obama knows that the defense budget needs to be cut, and he thinks Hagel is the guy who can do it.

Although I agree that Obama wants Hagel to cut Pentagon spending, I'm less pessimistic than Brooks about healthcare funding for two reasons. First, Brooks thinks that "Democrats had their best chance in a generation to raise revenue just now, and all they got was a measly $600 billion over 10 years." That's true, but this was an outcome based on the politics of 2012. Healthcare is a long-term problem, and the politics of taxes may change dramatically as the necessary tradeoffs become clear and political coalitions change in the future. I wouldn't be at all surprised if taxes rise fairly significantly over the next decade, especially if the Republican Party continues its headlong plummet into regional and demographic oblivion and can no longer offer any serious opposition to tax increases.

Second, Brooks says flatly that "there are no conceivable tax increases that can keep up" with projected Medicare outlays. But this simply isn't true. Even the usual scary CBO projections only suggest that federal healthcare spending (Medicare+Medicaid+CHIP+Obamacare) will rise from about 5 percent of GDP today to about 9 percent of GDP by 2035. That's nothing to sneeze at, but at the same time it's hardly inconceivable that we can raise taxes by 4 percent of GDP over the next two decades. That's a very long time to assume that American politics will stay the same as it is today.

What's more, there's some good news on the healthcare front: we're now in our third straight year of low growth rates for healthcare spending—and that's before any of Obamacare's cost containment measures have kicked in. Is this just due to the recession? Maybe, but it's actually part of a long-term trend that's surprisingly promising looking. Sarah Kliff rounds up the evidence here. Beyond that, Obamacare's various cost-control initiatives are likely to have some effect, and so will public pressure eventually.

Put it all together, and it's entirely possible that federal healthcare spending will rise by only about 3 percent of GDP over the next 20 years. That's a lot of money, but it's not Armageddon. And trying to forecast anything farther out than that is a mug's game. We simply have no idea what the medical world will look like that far in the future.

Brooks is right that healthcare costs are by far the most important part of the federal budget going forward. Every other component of the budget is growing either slowly (Social Security) or not at all (domestic spending and defense spending). But he's not right that healthcare will inevitably swallow everything else. We can afford to spend another 3 or 4 points of GDP if we need to, and the political climate of today isn't necessarily the political climate of tomorrow. By the end of the decade, raising taxes modestly might not be quite the impossibility that it is today.

How Did Lead Get Into Our Gasoline Anyway?

| Mon Jan. 7, 2013 2:58 PM PST

In my article about lead and crime, I didn't spend any time talking about the history of lead as a gasoline additive. Why? Because the piece was already 6,000 words long and I figured that adding to its length with a history lesson would detract from the primary point I wanted to make.

Nonetheless, the history of tetraethyl lead (TEL) has lessons to teach us. Its origins as a gasoline additive began in the 1920s, when it was perfected by GM as an anti-knock compound for high-compression engines. But GM—controlled at the time by DuPont— knew perfectly well that there was already an effective anti-knock additive available: ethanol. Motor fuel made up of about 80% gasoline and 20% ethanol worked beautifully. In "The Secret History of Lead," published in 2000 in The Nation, Jamie Lincoln Kitman explains what happened next:

From the corporation's perspective, however, the problems with ethyl alcohol were ultimately insurmountable and rather basic. GM couldn't dictate an infrastructure that could supply ethanol in the volumes that might be required. Equally troubling, any idiot with a still could make it at home, and in those days, many did. And ethanol, unlike TEL, couldn't be patented; it offered no profits for GM. Moreover, the oil companies hated it, a powerful disincentive for the fledgling GM, which was loath to jeopardize relations with these mighty power brokers. Surely the du Pont family's growing interest in oil and oil fields, as it branched out from its gunpowder roots into the oil-dependent chemical business, weighed on many GM directors' minds.

In March 1922, Pierre du Pont wrote to his brother Irénée du Pont, Du Pont company chairman, that TEL is "a colorless liquid of sweetish odor, very poisonous if absorbed through the skin, resulting in lead poisoning almost immediately." This statement of early factual knowledge of TEL's supreme deadliness is noteworthy, for it is knowledge that will be denied repeatedly by the principals in coming years as well as in the Ethyl Corporation's authorized history, released almost sixty years later. Underscoring the deep and implicit coziness between GM and Du Pont at this time, Pierre informed Irénée about TEL before GM had even filed its patent application for it.

Read the whole thing for much, much more. David Roberts goes a step further, lamenting that we repeat the mistakes we made with lead over and over with other compounds:

We start using something before we understand whether it’s safe. We begin to discover it’s not safe. Industry obscures the science and viciously battles off regulation for as long as possible, forecasting economic doom. Lots of people get sick and die while they do so. Finally some regulations are put in place. The costs of complying turn out to be lower than anyone predicted. The benefits turn out to be much greater than anyone predicted. The pollutant turns out to be more harmful than originally thought. Despite all of the above, industry continues battling efforts to further reduce the pollutant, while claiming credit for the benefits of reducing it as much as they were forced to.

Over and over and over, this story plays out. Yet with each new pollution fight, it’s as though we’ve never had all the previous ones. (See: chlorofluorocarbons, mercury, smog, phthalates, etc.)

This is especially true of compounds like lead, that primarily affect children. If you test lead at moderate levels on adults, you can massage the data pretty easily to show only mild effects. If you test on children over the course of a single year, you can also massage the data to show only mild effects. The problem is that it takes years for the effects of lead on brain development to show up. The kind of research it takes to demonstrate these effects is expensive, and industry obviously has no incentive to fund it. So it doesn't get done.

In the end, of course, the research was eventually done. And it turned out that as more research was done, lead's horrors multiplied. The most recent research, which links lead with aggression and violent crime, is merely the latest in a long string of ill effects that can be laid at lead's doorstep.

Republicans Should Choose a Different Hostage

| Mon Jan. 7, 2013 12:00 PM PST

Suzy Khimm writes about a way for Republicans to shut down the government that doesn't involve refusing to raise the debt ceiling:

Congress will have to pass another short-term budget before late March because it's been unable to pass a full budget through the regular process. In fact, the continuing resolution was the very first budget fight that Republicans used to extract spending cuts in the last Congress, threatening to shut down the government until a last-minute deal was struck in April 2011....Congressional Republicans now say that the year-to-year, discretionary budget must be part of the next fiscal deal's spending cuts, not just entitlements. "The pinch points will be the sequester, debt ceiling and the CR—all three coming up in the next three months," Rep. Tom Price (R-Ga.) told me. "The CR—it's one of the areas where there is indeed an absolute deadline. Washington and Congress respond to crises and deadlines, and we need to address the spending side of the equation."

If Republicans really want to shut things down, this is the way to do it. Don't get me wrong: I still think they'd be crazy to do it. Cutting spending while the economy is still weak is a recipe for disaster. But that's a difference of opinion, and a perfectly legitimate one to solve via the political process. Refusing to pay bills you've already run up isn't. Neither is risking the country's credit rating and its historic position as the world's most reliable lender.

There's another reason to do this via the normal budget process too: it's entirely feasible. When John Boehner says that he wants a 1:1 ratio of spending cuts to debt ceiling increases, he's using a ten-year baseline. In other words, a $1 trillion increase in the debt ceiling requires a $100 billion cut in annual spending. This is an amount that Obama and congressional Democrats have already agreed to in the past, and finding cuts of that magnitude can probably be done via the ordinary give and take of the legislative process.

Maybe not, of course. Maybe Republicans will end up shutting down the government. That would be terrible public policy, but it wouldn't be a complete breakdown of America's commitment to pay its bills. It's the right road for Republicans to take if they insist on holding hostages yet again.

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Today in Orwellianism: Torture Isn't Torture if it Stops When You Start Talking

| Mon Jan. 7, 2013 11:16 AM PST

From CIA veteran Jose Rodriguez, explaining why the CIA's torture program wasn't really torture:

Detainees were given the opportunity to cooperate. If they resisted and were believed to hold critical information, they might receive — with Washington’s approval — some of the enhanced techniques, such as being grabbed by the collar, deprived of sleep or, in rare cases, waterboarded. (The Justice Department assured us in writing at the time that these techniques did not constitute torture.) When the detainee became compliant, the techniques stopped — forever.

So....it was OK because detainees could make it stop anytime by doing what they were told. In other words, pretty much the same as every other episode of torture in history.

Paul Waldman has a question about this that he'd like answered:

Can you give a definition of torture that wouldn't include waterboarding, stress positions, and sleep deprivation? I have no idea what such a definition might be, and I have to imagine that if they had any idea they would have offered one. Because here's the definition of torture you'd think everyone could agree on: Torture is the infliction of extreme suffering for the purpose of extracting information or a confession.

I have a different question: if you think the CIA torture program was OK, presumably that means you wouldn't be outraged if the same techniques were used on U.S. soldiers in order to extract information from them. Right? It can't possibly be the case that it's OK for us to do this stuff, but not for anyone else, can it? Given that, the only sensible interpretation of Rodriguez's position is that the CIA program wasn't torture and therefore should be thought of as the new baseline for treatment of enemy combatants throughout the world.

Welcome to the brave new barbarism.

Getting a Republican to Implement Democratic Defense Policies is Unnerving the GOP

| Mon Jan. 7, 2013 10:01 AM PST

So it looks like Obama is going to nominate Chuck Hagel as secretary of defense after all. Andrew Sullivan says his core qualification is that he was a clear-eyed critic of the Iraq war even though he initially supported it:

Unlike so many of the lemmings and partisans of Washington DC, Hagel actually called out the catastrophe of the Iraq War as it happened. The neocons cannot forgive him for exposing what they wrought on the nation and the world. For good measure, he has a Purple Heart and has served in combat. Not easy to say about most of the Iraq War armchair warriors and war criminals.

Which is to say, as Chuck Todd said this morning, this nomination is about accountability for the Iraq War. All those ducking responsibility for the calamity — Abrams, Kristol, Stephens — are determined that those of us honest enough to resist, having supported in the first place, be erased from history. Or smeared as anti-Semites. Or given that epithet which impresses them but baffles me: "outside the mainstream". Rephrase that as — after initial support — being "outside the Iraq War mainstream" in DC — and you have a major reason to back him.

I won't pretend to have a firmly considered opinion about Hagel. On general principle, I don't like the idea of nominating a Republican to run the Pentagon yet again. Doing it once is one thing. Doing it a second time sends a message that there just aren't enough Democrats around who are qualified to run the warmaking branch of government.

Still, there's no getting around the smartness of the strategy. When it comes to defense policy, Obama's tenure has mostly been marked by (a) withdrawing troops from warzones, (b) cutting the Pentagon budget, and (c) repealing DADT. Getting a Republican on board as the public face of those policies gives them a bipartisan cast that would be nearly impossible to get otherwise. This is one reason that I think Republicans are so unnerved by Hagel. Despite what they say, their real problem is that they don't like the idea that one of their own will be telling the country that it's OK to withdraw from Afghanistan and it's OK to shave the defense budget a bit.

The $1 Trillion Platinum Coin Is Horrible, Lawless Policy

| Mon Jan. 7, 2013 9:26 AM PST

Paul Krugman thinks President Obama should starting thinking about minting a $1 trillion platinum coin to get around the debt ceiling:

It's easy to make sententious remarks to the effect that we shouldn't look for gimmicks, we should sit down like serious people and deal with our problems realistically. That may sound reasonable—if you've been living in a cave for the past four years. Given the realities of our political situation, and in particular the mixture of ruthlessness and craziness that now characterizes House Republicans, it's just ridiculous—far more ridiculous than the notion of the coin.

So if the 14th amendment solution—simply declaring that the debt ceiling is unconstitutional—isn't workable, go with the coin.

I've written before that I don't think a court would uphold such a thing, and I've gotten pushback from two main directions. First, who would have standing to sue? I don't know the answer to that, but I think there are plenty of possibilities, John Boehner at the top of the list. Second, a number of people have suggested that judges often don't look at legislative intent, so the fact that this is based on a loophole wouldn't be a problem. I doubt that. It's one thing not to dive deeply into legislative history, but it's quite another to allow the president to take a dramatic action that's plainly, obviously, 180 degrees away from the intent of the law.

But put that aside for a moment. I want to ask something else: Is this really the road liberals want to go down? Do we really want to be on record endorsing the idea that if a president doesn't get his way, he should simply twist the law like a pretzel and essentially do what he wants by fiat? My recollection is that we didn't think very highly of this kind of thing when we thought George Bush was doing it.

This whole thing is not just a ridiculous idea, it's a bad idea too. Republicans seem willing to set the country on fire to please their increasingly fever-swampish base, and eventually they'll pay a price for that at the polls. Sooner than that, they'll pay a price with the business community. This is a problem that we should work out via politics and public opinion, not by pretending the law allows the president to do anything he wants.

Lead and Crime: I'll Be On the Melissa Harris-Perry Show Sunday at 10 am

| Sat Jan. 5, 2013 9:31 AM PST

By the time you see this I should be on a plane to New York, where I'll be on the Melissa Harris-Perry show tomorrow on MSNBC talking about lead and crime. (Plus a few other topics.) One of the other guests on the lead panel will be Howard Mielke of Tulane University, who's been doing lead research in New Orleans for the past two decades. Sarah Zhang interviewed him as part of our lead package for this issue, and you can read her interview here.

Before I head out to the airport, though, here's another tidbit about lead and crime that didn't make it into my magazine piece. (If you still haven't read it, click here.) As you'll recall, lead emissions mainly affect children. This means that when emissions decrease, you have to wait about 18 years to see any effect on violent crime. In the United States, lead emissions started to decline in the mid-70s, and crime began to decline in the early 90s. But what about the rest of the world?

Rick Nevin wrote an extensive paper in 2007 linking lead emissions to crime rates in other countries, so I asked him for his predictions about the decline of crime elsewhere in the world. Here's his forecast:

  • The USA violent crime rate is now down about 50% from its peak in 1991, and I expect that the violent crime rate in Western Europe will be down by about 50% from its peak over the next 20 years, with the largest part of that decline over the next ten years.
  • Eastern Europe will follow the same trend, but will take a few years longer because they left gasoline lead levels quite high through the end of the Soviet era.
  • Crime will also plummet over the next 10 to 20 years in Latin America, where leaded gasoline use and air lead levels fell sharply from around 1990 through the mid-1990s.

The chart on the right shows just a single example of a non-U.S. link between lead and crime: the burglary rate in Britain. It peaked in the mid-90s and has been falling steadily ever since, following the same curve as blood lead levels in preschoolers. Nevin has a more layman-friendly version of his paper here if you want to dig into this further. He discusses lead levels and crime rates in Britain, Canada, Australia, West Germany, France, and New Zealand. His paper also discusses several things that I didn't mention in my article, including the effect of living in a housing project near an expressway; recent arrest rates by age group; the disproportionate effect of lead emissions on African-Americans; Steven Levitt's famous theory about a link between abortion and crime; and the impact of lead on IQ and school test scores. It's worth a read.