Kevin Drum - January 2013

Quote of the Day: Naming Names in the Hostage Crisis

| Mon Jan. 14, 2013 1:03 PM EST

President Obama, explaining who's threatening to wreck the economy unless their pet spending cuts are enacted:

uh, certain extremist groups in Congress....

Oh, come on. Just say it, Mr. President. Republicans. Re. Pub. Li. Cans. That's not so hard, is it?

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Which is Worse: Pedophile Teachers or Insane Gunmen?

| Mon Jan. 14, 2013 11:36 AM EST

From the LA Times today:

Behind a locked classroom door, a Los Angeles third-grade teacher purportedly committed lewd acts against students. The charges spurred demands for classrooms to remain open during the school day.

But after the shooting deaths of 20 first-graders in Connecticut last month, calls were made to keep classrooms locked.

The intent of both efforts is to keep students safe. But as school districts nationwide examine their security measures following the Newtown, Conn., massacre, the question of locked versus unlocked classroom doors is in debate. Should teachers and administrators use their secured doors as a shield from an outside danger? Or does a locked door conceal a potential danger inside?

I really hate living in the 21st century sometimes.

GOP to Press: Obama Must Help Save Us From Our Own Crazy People

| Mon Jan. 14, 2013 11:15 AM EST

Politico reports that House Republicans are determined to shut down the government in order to force President Obama to "finally cut spending" by the end of March:

GOP officials said more than half of their members are prepared to allow default unless Obama agrees to dramatic cuts he has repeatedly said he opposes. Many more members, including some party leaders, are prepared to shut down the government to make their point. House Speaker John Boehner “may need a shutdown just to get it out of their system,” said a top GOP leadership adviser. “We might need to do that for member-management purposes — so they have an endgame and can show their constituents they’re fighting.”

Obama, of course, has already cut spending by nearly $2 trillion over the past couple of years, and the upcoming sequestration cuts would cut spending even more. So there's no "finally" about it. It's been happening all along, but Republicans have somehow mesmerized the press into never actually saying this.

Aside from that, I wouldn't take any of this too seriously. "GOP officials," in this story, are obviously just spinning to make it sound like they don't have any choice and Obama should just cave now in order to placate the crazy people. It's probably good negotiating strategy, but that's all it is.

And frankly, I'm not sure it's even that. I mean, is it really a good idea to suggest that the Republican Party intends to shut down the government for "member-management purposes"? If that starts to percolate upward into the kind of news coverage that ordinary people watch, it probably won't make the GOP look all that great, will it?

Bottom line: (1) Spending has already been cut substantially. (2) Short-term spending shouldn't be cut anymore because the economy is still fragile. (3) Long-term spending needs to be addressed, but it's nowhere near as apocalyptic as Republicans like to make it sound. I wonder when the press will start reporting that?

Platinum Coins and Banana Republics

| Sun Jan. 13, 2013 5:12 PM EST

A couple of days ago Greg Sargent emailed to ask me why I was so opposed to the $1 trillion platinum coin as a way of evading the debt ceiling. After all, a lot of liberals argue that Republicans are threatening to turn the United States into a banana republic by refusing to allow our bills to be paid, so why shouldn't Democrats respond in kind? I think it's worth sharing my answer:

Fighting banana republic with more banana republic is far more dangerous than coin supporters think. It's one thing for Republicans to go crazy. It's another for craziness to essentially become institutionalized. When liberals stop fighting this kind of stuff, we really are on our way to banana republic-hood.

Is that self-explanatory? In the end, I think we'll end up with a negotiated solution of some kind to the debt ceiling standoff, so I don't consider the danger as great as some people do. But even if I'm wrong about that, I think there's a much bigger danger in the possibility of ridiculous unilateral legal hair-splitting becoming the norm in American politics. If that happens, then we really are just an unusually rich banana republic.

The answer to the debt ceiling nonsense is to force Republicans back into some semblance of responsibility and prudence. In the long term, it's the only way we survive. Barack Obama appears to understand that.

Chart of the Day: We're Driving Less and Less and Less

| Sun Jan. 13, 2013 12:28 PM EST

Justin Horner points out today that, against all odds, Americans are continuing to drive less and less. Vehicle miles traveled per person plateaued in 2005 and then started declining dramatically in 2008. On average, Americans drove about 700 miles per year less in 2012 than they did in 2007.

So will this trend keep up? Horner offers three possibilities:

  1. The Interrupted Growth Hypothesis: VMT cuts are temporary and increases will resume once the economy picks up (although we know more VMT is not a required, or inevitable, part economic growth);
  2. The Saturation Hypothesis: car ownership and personal travel budgets have hit their limit, so no more growth is likely;
  3. The Peak Car Hypothesis: VMT has hit its peak, and history will now see a VMT decline of undetermined length.

In other words, he says, "in the future VMT will either go up, go down, or stay the same." His guess is that it will continue to go down.

Sorry, Peeps: No Platinum Coin For You

| Sat Jan. 12, 2013 4:21 PM EST

When it comes to the Most Important Political Topic Of Our Times™—namely the possible minting of a $1 trillion platinum coin—Ezra Klein advances the ball today. The idea behind this slow-news-week chimera is that the Treasury would mint the coin, deposit it at the Fed, and voila: the government has more money to spend even though we've hit the debt ceiling. Up to now, we've all argued about whether this is a good idea; whether it's legal; and whether President Obama would ever consider this option in the first place1. But there's always been another question rolling around in my head: would the Fed even accept the coin? If they won't, the whole idea runs aground instantly.

Well, it turns out they wouldn't: "Neither the Treasury Department nor the Federal Reserve believes that the law can or should be used to facilitate the production of platinum coins for the purpose of avoiding an increase in the debt limit," a Treasury spokesman told Ezra today.

So there you have it. Can we now please stop talking about this and find something else to chatter about next week?

1Answer: No, he wouldn't. I mean, seriously, folks. This is Barack Obama we're talking about here. Can you even imagine him buying into nutbaggery like this?

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Lead and Crime: A Response to Jim Manzi

| Sat Jan. 12, 2013 1:11 PM EST

A couple of days ago Jim Manzi posted a long and technical critique of my hypothesis that gasoline lead is strongly linked to the rise and fall of violent crime that we've experienced over the past half century. (Detailed in "Criminal Element" in our current issue.) It's the kind of critique that probably ought to be addressed by an expert, but unfortunately there don't seem to be any in my living room at the moment. Just me. So I'm going to respond myself, and hopefully others may respond in their own way later on.

A quick note: I spoke to Manzi while I was preparing my article on the lead-crime hypothesis, and I've also read Uncontrolled, his excellent book about the inherent problems with econometric analysis (review here). So I'm not surprised that he has some pushback. Nonetheless, I think he pushes back too much.

The rest of this is likely to get long and a little wonky, and it doesn't contain any fascinating new factlets about lead that I left out of my magazine piece. For that reason, I'm going to put it below the fold. However, if you make it all the way to the end, there's an irony to our disagreement that you might find amusing. Click the link for more.

Friday Cat Blogging - 11 January 2013

| Fri Jan. 11, 2013 3:00 PM EST

Last week we were collectively musing about how to get a wider variety of cat + quilt photos, and one suggestion was to make a tent out of the quilt and just wait for Domino to burrow under it. As you can see, this worked like a charm. Especially during chilly Southern California winters (low 60s!), Domino is a big fan of burrowing under quilts.

The design of this week's quilt is "Yellow Brick Road," by Atkinson Designs. It uses fat quarters of tone-on-tone fabrics, with a contrasting border and backing. It's machine pieced and machine quilted.

Understanding the Debt Ceiling Showdown: Default vs. "Default"

| Fri Jan. 11, 2013 2:17 PM EST

If congressional Republicans refuse to raise the debt ceiling, does this mean the United States will default? Brit Hume says no. Bob Somerby wonders if he's right:

Is is true? is our use of the term “default” just a bit of scare talk?....Millions of people are being told that we won’t go into true “default” if the debt limit stays where it is—and millions more have no idea what the term “default” means.

This is something that's the object of some slippery language lately. If the debt ceiling isn't raised, then government spending will be limited to the amount that it brings in via tax receipts. Give or take a bit, this amounts to $200 billion per month. The president will have to decide how to spend this money, and everyone agrees that his first priority has to be interest payments to bondholders, which comes to only about $20 billion per month. In other words, there's no chance at all that the United States will go into default in the usual financial meaning of the word.

However, if, like Paul Krugman, you talk about the United States "defaulting on many of its obligations," you're using the word in a more everyday sense. The federal budget allocates money for various purposes, and there are lots of people who are counting on getting that money. But if spending is limited to $200 billion per month, some of them won't.

So: we won't default on bond payments, but we will "default" on some portion of federal spending that's already been authorized.

Krugman calls the Republican debt ceiling threat "vile." If we hit the debt ceiling, he says, "This would have disastrous effects on financial markets, the economy, and our standing in the world. Yet Republicans are threatening to trigger this disaster unless they get spending cuts that they weren’t able to enact through normal, Constitutional means. Republicans go wild at this analogy, but it’s unavoidable. This is exactly like someone walking into a crowded room, announcing that he has a bomb strapped to his chest, and threatening to set that bomb off unless his demands are met."

Is this right? I'd say so. If Republicans want to play hardball on budget cutting, they have a perfectly normal, well-accepted way of doing that: during the budget process. If they don't get their way on spending, they can refuse to pass a budget. This would require the president to start shutting down government programs, which is exactly what he'll have to do if the debt limit isn't raised.

So why is one vile while the other is merely reckless? That's simple: In the case of a budget showdown, Republicans would be refusing to authorize new spending. But in the case of the debt ceiling, Republicans would be explicitly refusing to pay bills they've already run up. This is the action of a banana republic, not the most powerful nation on earth, one whose reliability and good word is crucial to the orderly workings of global financial markets.

It's one thing to disagree about which programs should be funded and the level of that funding. That's ordinary politics. Shutting down the government over that disagreement may be reckless, hardball politics, but that's all it is. But refusing to pay bills for goods and services you've already purchased? Refusing to pay out money to individuals and businesses who you've previously promised to pay and who are counting on those payments because, after all, whose word is better than the United States government? That's a whole different thing. And that's vile.

Texas Joins the School Testing Backlash

| Fri Jan. 11, 2013 12:43 PM EST

Abby Rapoport reports that it's not just teachers unions that are getting tired of the endless high-stakes testing regimen in public schools today:

While most of the national anti-testing rhetoric comes from teachers' groups and others associated with the left, in Texas rural Republicans took the lead. During the 2011 session, even as lawmakers were gutting education spending, one-third of the state House members, mostly Republicans, supported an amendment from Representative Larry Taylor of the small town of Sherman to get a waiver from the Department of Education and suspend testing for the next two school years.

In a way, I'm mostly just surprised that this has taken so long. I'm not resolutely anti-test myself: It strikes me as a good idea to collect at least some amount of consistent, quantitative data if we want to understand how well our schools are doing and which educational reforms produce the best results. At the same time, the sheer magnitude of our test-taking culture has become breathtaking over the past couple of decades. Standardized tests should be a modest part of the school curriculum, not a frantic, neverending race that engulfs the entire culture of teaching.

Maybe everyone is starting to get that message. It was George W. Bush's Texas that led the way in the testing craze, and it would be appropriate if it were Texas that led the way in reining it in.