• VAWA Passes, the Hastert Rule Takes a Tumble


    The House finally reauthorized the Violence Against Women Act today despite the opposition of more than half the Republican caucus. Steve Benen thinks this means the wind is shifting on the venerable Hastert Rule:

    We’re learning something important about House Speaker John Boehner (R-Ohio) and the so-called “Hastert Rule.” For those who need a refresher, under modern Republican norms, the Speaker only considers legislation that enjoys “majority of the majority” support — if most GOP House members oppose a measure, it won’t even be considered, whether it can pass the chamber or not.

    The non-binding rule is great for party discipline, but lousy for democracy and governing.

    For Boehner’s part, the Speaker has long believed in enforcing the “Hastert Rule,” but he’s finding far more flexibility on the issue than we’re accustomed to seeing. When it was time to approve the “fiscal cliff” deal, Boehner ignored the rule to pass a bipartisan Senate plan. When he needed to pass relief aid to Hurricane Sandy victims, he bypassed the rule again.

    At the time, the Speaker said these were isolated incidents that wouldn’t be repeated, but he we are again — most of Boehner’s caucus opposed the Violence Against Women Act, but he brought it to the floor and passed it anyway.

    I guess my takeaway is a little different: This is mostly a sign that Boehner understands what his party is up against. In the last election, Republican problems with the Hispanic vote got most of the attention, but that’s not the only demographic group the GOP is losing badly. There’s also women. And young voters. And especially young women voters: in the last two elections, they’ve voted for Obama by whopping margins of 69 and 66 percent.

    So in the same way that pragmatic Republicans are in favor of passing some kind of comprehensive immigration bill to stop the bleeding among Hispanics, Boehner wanted to pass VAWA in order to stop the bleeding among young women, for whom this is very much a hot button issue. This same dynamic might play out on a few other issues too, but I’m not sure if it heralds the demise of the Hastert Rule more generally. We’ll have to wait and see.

  • Arkansas Accepts Medicaid Expansion, But Not Via Medicaid


    Ed Kilgore, once again directing his gimlet eye at goings-on in his native South, points us today to a report that Arkansas plans to accept the full expansion of Medicaid that’s part of Obamacare. The gotcha is that Arkansas’ Republican legislature is insisting that instead of receiving traditional Medicaid, all the new beneficiaries will get benefits via private insurance purchased on Obamacare’s exchanges. This will almost certainly be more expensive, but apparently Republicans are so enamored of a private solution that they’re willing to accept this.

    Ed is pretty gobsmacked by that, but I’m a little more willing to wait and see how it works out. In particular, I happen to think this may solve a legitimate problem. Here’s the tail end of an article in the Arkansas Times:

    Department of Human Services Director John Selig speculated that things would actually run more smoothly. “The most difficult part of the exchange was going to be people going from Medicaid to private insurance, back and forth as they went up and down [the] income line,” he said. “Now, you just keep [the private insurance company] as you go up or down. In a lot of ways this simplifies what happens on the exchange.”

    This really is an issue with the Medicaid expansion, and it’s a well known one. If you’re at 130 percent of the poverty level this year, you qualify for Medicaid. If you get a raise and go up to 140 percent next year, you no longer qualify and instead have to navigate the exchanges. If your hours are cut back and you fall to 130 percent again the year after that, it’s back to Medicaid.

    How big a deal is this? That’s hard to say. But it’s not a made-up issue, and it’s possible that the Arkansas approach could legitimately be better. What’s more, I’m OK with allowing states to experiment within limits. It’s the only way to find out whether or not the exchanges really are more expensive, and whether or not the Medicaid ping-pong really is a serious problem. The ideology behind this decision might be misguided, but there’s a good chance we’ll get some useful data out of it regardless.

  • Shale Gas Fracking Will Be Around For a Long, Long Time


    The Wall Street Journal reports that the shale gas boom is going to last for decades:

    The most exhaustive study to date of a key natural-gas field in Texas, combined with related research under way elsewhere, shows that U.S. shale-rock formations will provide a growing source of moderately priced natural gas through 2040, and decline only slowly after that. A report on the Texas field, to be released Thursday, was reviewed by The Wall Street Journal.

    ….Looking at data from actual wells rather than relying on estimates and extrapolations, the study broadly confirms conclusions by the energy industry and the U.S. government, which in December forecast rising gas production. “We are looking at multi, multi decades of growth,” said Scott Tinker, director of the Bureau of Economic Geology at the university and a leader of the study.

    I don’t have access to the study of the Texas field, let alone the “related research” on other shale gas fields, but the press release from the University of Texas does include the chart on the right, which suggests that the Barnett field peaked last year and is now in decline. In 15 years it will be producing at half its peak rate.

    But that’s still a lot of shale gas between now and 2050, when the field will be exhausted. And it’s going to require drilling a lot more wells along the way, since individual wells tend to produce for only a short time. Given this, it sure would be nice to work out the possible environmental damage of shale fracking on air and groundwater now, instead of waiting until 2030 or so, when it will be too late.

  • The Chinese Bond Meme That Refuses to Die


    Robert Solow had an op-ed in the New York Times yesterday “emphasizing six facts about the debt that many Americans may not be aware of.” For example, half our debt is owned by foreigners; it’s owed in dollars, which is our own currency; and while this debt could spark inflation and soak up private savings that would otherwise go into useful investment, that’s not going to happen in a weak economy like the one we have now. CFR president Richard Haass tweets that Solow isn’t pessimistic enough about rising interest rates and the “ability of a hostile foreign govt to pressure US,” but Dan Drezner thinks that, if anything, Solow is painting too grim a picture:

    As for Haass, I’m not exactly sure what “rising rates” he’s talking about, as just about any chart you can throw up shows historically low borrowing rates for the United States government. Indeed, the U.S. Treasury is exploiting this fact by locking in U.S. long-term debt at these rates. As for foreign governments pressuring the United States, the fear of foreign financial statecraft has been overly hyped by the foreign policy community. And by “overly hyped,” I mean “wildly, massively overblown.”

    The bias in foreign policy circles and DC punditry is to bemoan staggering levels of U.S. debt. This bias does percolate down into the perceptions of ordinary Americans, which leads to wild misperceptions about the actual state of the U.S. economy and U.S. economic power. I’d like to see a lot more op-eds by Solow et al that puncture these myths more effectively.

    This claim that China will be able to blackmail or extort America because of all the U.S. debt it owns is a zombie idea that just won’t die. The truth is that China’s holdings of U.S. treasuries give it no leverage to speak of; pose no danger to America; and China’s recent actions demonstrate pretty conclusively that they know this perfectly well. Hell, China’s share of U.S. debt has gone down for the past two years. This whole meme really needs to die.

  • Seriously, WTF Is Up With Bob Woodward?


    I was busy with something else and somehow missed the big Bob Woodward spat last night. Toward the end of the evening I reconnected with Twitter and caught up with a few exhausted tweets from people who were tired of the Woodward thing, or disgusted with the Woodward thing, or whatever, but I didn’t quite realize that something genuinely new had happened.

    But yes. It’s splashed all over Drudge: “White House Threatens Woodward”! WTF? Well, one of the nice things about missing this in real time is that the whole story has now played out and I can catch up with it in a few minutes. Basically, Woodward told CNN that a “very senior person” at the White House had threatened that he would “regret doing this” if he published a story saying that the sequester originated with Obama. After fast forwarding through an entire day of confused stories, it turns out the official is Gene Sperling, and here’s the email he sent Woodward last Friday:

    I apologize for raising my voice in our conversation today. My bad. I do understand your problems with a couple of our statements in the fall — but feel on the other hand that you focus on a few specific trees that gives a very wrong perception of the forest. But perhaps we will just not see eye to eye here.

    But I do truly believe you should rethink your comment about saying saying that Potus asking for revenues is moving the goal post. I know you may not believe this, but as a friend, I think you will regret staking out that claim. The idea that the sequester was to force both sides to go back to try at a big or grand barain with a mix of entitlements and revenues (even if there were serious disagreements on composition) was part of the DNA of the thing from the start. It was an accepted part of the understanding — from the start. Really. It was assumed by the Rs on the Supercommittee that came right after.

    Woodward responded the next day that Sperling had no need to apologize. “I for one welcome a little heat; there should more given the importance.”

    Some threat, huh? As a friend put it via email, “It’s odd that a reporter who you would have to assume has had many run-ins, shouting matches, accusations, etc. would go public with his perceived slights. I can’t imagine a junior reporter taking this tack now and not being chastised for mishandling it.”

    Something very odd is going on with Woodward. The point of Sperling’s email is clear: he’s not taking issue with the idea that the White House proposed the sequester, but he does think Woodward is wrong when he says both sides agreed that the sequester substitute would be purely spending cuts with no tax increases. Virtually everyone in Washington agrees that Woodward is wrong about that, yet he’s been repeating that line for the past week in the face of mountains of evidence to the contrary.

    What’s more, Sperling quite clearly didn’t threaten Woodward, and Woodward didn’t take it as a threat at the time. Again: WTF?

  • Why Aren’t Conservatives Interested in Healthcare?


    Here’s something new. CPAC, the right wing’s big annual gabfest, has come in for a lot of criticism recently for being too hidebound and insular to give Chris Christie a speaking slot at their conference in March. Today, though, Philip Klein takes them on for the opposite sin: giving up on conservatism by not holding an Obamacare panel this year. However, he admits this is less a CPAC problem than simply a problem with conservatism itself:

    Conservative activists often disregard health care as a liberal issue […] and only become engaged when liberals attempt to advance big government solutions.

    In 1993 and 1994, for instance, when the Clintons were pushing their national health care plan, the conservative movement rose up to successfully defeat it. But then, instead of taking advantage of the intervening 15 years to advance market-based solutions to health care, conservative activists largely ignored the issue.

    ….A few scholars such as Sally Pipes, John Goodman, Grace-Marie Turner, David Hogberg and Greg Scandlen were consistently writing about how to foster the creation of a consumer-based medical system. But health care just didn’t generate any passion at the grassroots level until Obama began his health care push….In hindsight, the interest in health care policy on the Right is looking more like a fad built around opposition to Obamacare.

    There’s a pretty obvious conclusion to be drawn here: conservatives actually don’t care much about healthcare. Just like they don’t care much about income inequality or particulate poisoning. These just aren’t hot button issues on the right, and the truth is that the grass roots isn’t much interested in egghead ideas about consumer-directed healthcare.

    In other words, the recent blooming of interest in healthcare policy really was just a fad built around opposition to Obamacare. Nobody in the conservative movement ever had the slightest intention of following through on the “replace” part of “repeal and replace.”

    So Klein is right about that. But he doesn’t take the next step: asking why conservatives have no real interest in healthcare policy. If there really are some conservative scholars working in this area, why haven’t their proposals sparked any interest among the rank-and-file? From my liberal perspective, the answer seems obvious, but I’d be curious to hear what Klein thinks. He’s got the symptom right, but what about a diagnosis?

  • It Looks Like Pre-Clearance Is Doomed


    The 1965 Voting Rights Act requires certain states with histories of racial discrimination to pre-clear any election changes with the Department of Justice. Conservatives have been arguing for years that this provision of the VRA is antiquated and should be struck down. The Supreme Court heard yet another argument on this subject today, and this time it looks like opponents are finally going to win. Here’s election law expert Rick Hasen:

    A few years ago, I would have had a smidgen of sympathy for the opponents of pre-clearance. Maybe half a century is long enough. But given the rash of racially charged voter suppression efforts of the past three years—photo ID laws, early voting shenanigans, voter purges, etc.—this sure seems like a wildly inopportune time to pretend that we’ve overcome the demons of our past. Personally, I think I’d vote to expand pre-clearance at this point. Republicans like to claim that the VRA is unfair because it’s not just the South that does this stuff, and their point is well taken. The solution just happens to be the opposite of the one they’ve proposed.

    More here from Adam Serwer on Chief Justice John Roberts and his long war against the VRA.

    UPDATE: Hasen’s site is back up, and his full post is here.

  • Skip the Rules, Let’s Just Allow Smart People to Stay in the United States


    Felix Salmon is enthusiastic about the latest version of the Startup Act, sponsored by a bipartisan group of senators. In particular, he likes the idea of creating an “immigrant-entrepreneur visa”:

    The immigrant-entrepreneur visa is pretty simple. You create a pool of 75,000 such things, available to anybody who’s here already on an H1-B or F-1 visa. When those people switch from their old visa to their new one, they have to start a new company; employ at least two full-time, non-family member employees “at a rate comparable to the median income of employees in the region”, and invest or raise at least $100,000. After that, they have to continue adding employees at a rate of one per year, so that after three years, there must be at least five employees. At the end of three years, you graduate to a green card, and with it the standard path to citizenship.

    The new visa would create an employer exit strategy for H1-Bs, allowing workers to leave companies which pay too little or offer too few opportunities, and instead strike out on their own. And of course — by definition — it would create jobs.

    Hold on a second. This is based on a Kauffman Foundation report, and as near as I can tell, the authors didn’t even make a nod to dynamic effects. Would this create new jobs on net? Or would job creation simply shift from one group to another? They don’t say.

    In a way, of course, I don’t care. This whole thing sounds like almost a parody of bureaucracy to me, practically designed to encourage cheating and game playing among these budding new entrepreneurs. It would be much better to simply let them do whatever they want without any special rules. If they want to employ their nephews and nieces, let them. If they only have four employees after three years, but still believe in their businesses and want to keep trying to make a go of it, that’s fine with me. If they can only raise $50,000, who cares? If their company fails, let ’em start up a new one or take a different job.

    Now, my guess is that Felix agrees. To the best of my knowledge, we don’t really have a shortage of STEM workers, so that’s a lousy excuse for a visa program. The reason we should let people like this into the country is because they’re smart and educated, and we should let them switch jobs freely. Or start up a company. Or whatever they want to do. On average, I don’t doubt for a second that this would be enormously beneficial without a bunch of dumb rules that try to shoehorn all these visa holders into specific careers.

    Unfortunately, there are too many interest groups opposed to this. So instead we end up with rule-laden proposals like this. It’s a shame.

  • Maybe It’s Time to Cut Back on the C-List Outrages


    Yesterday, Sen. Jeff Sessions waved around a new GAO report that proved Obamacare was all based on a big fat lie. “The report reveals the dramatic falsehoods that were used to push it to passage,” Sessions said. “The big-government crowd in Washington manipulated the numbers to get the financial score they wanted.”

    I shrugged my shoulders when I heard it. It was pretty obviously some kind of fever swamp nonsense, and I didn’t really look forward to diving into a GAO report to figure out what Sessions was up to. Luckily for me, Aaron Carroll took a look and described the actual conclusions of the report:

    Let’s be clear about what this report says. It’s a worst-case-scenario. They looked at what would happen to the deficit if (1) we left in all the spending, (2) all of the cost control measures utterly failed, and (3) we removed all of the revenue streams/taxes. If you do that, then the bill raises the deficit $6.2 trillion over 75 years.

    This is what Sessions asked the GAO to do. He wanted a report describing what would happen if all the costs of Obamacare stayed intact but all the revenues and savings measures didn’t. To the surprise of no one, under those conditions the deficit would go up. You could pretty much plug any government program into a scenario like that and get the same result.

    I don’t get it. This is so obviously moronic that no one with a room-temperature IQ will pay attention to it. So what’s in it for Sessions? He gets to wave around a report and hustle the rubes at CPAC, maybe, but what’s the point of that? They already hate Obamacare anyway.

    Are conservatives starting to notice that this kind of half-baked outrage-mongering is a waste of time? Matt Yglesias points today to a post from RedState’s uberconservative leader Erick Erickson, who seems to have figured this out:

    Conservatives are trying so hard to highlight controversies, no matter how trivial, we have forgotten the basics of reporting….The “Obamaphone” is a great example of this. Conservatives laughed out loud at the video of the lady saying Barack Obama had given her a phone. Conservatives used it as an example of all that was wrong with the expansion of the welfare state under Barack Obama. What many conservatives missed was that the program was a pre-existing program. In fact, the “Obamaphone” idea goes back to the Reagan Administration, but the present program was implemented in 2008 when George W. Bush was President. Government funds are not even used directly.

    Focus on the Obamaphone by conservatives missed a number of key points and, in not covering the basic facts, sent conservative activists down rabbit holes. It would have been helpful if conservative reporters spent more time laying out the basic who, what, where, when, why, and how of the issue before exploring the necessity of the program and the fact that there are Americans who credit Barack Obama with giving them that phone.

    ….There are scandals to uncover and there are outrageous stories to be outraged over, but I would submit conservatives are spending a lot more time trying to find things to be outraged over than reporting the news and basic facts online from a conservative perspective….Conservatives must start telling stories, not just producing white papers and peddling daily outrage.

    On a bigger scale, this also applies to Solyndra, Fast & Furious, and Benghazi!, but these kinds of things will always be part of the political world because they really do have the potential to produce genuine scandals if determined digging eventually uncovers something. Conservatives may have overplayed their hands on all of them, but in a way that’s just an occupational hazard.

    But even if the big-ticket items are here to stay, conservatives could still do themselves some good by spending less time on manufactured C-list outrages that are (a) transparently dumb and (b) do little except produce grist for scammers and hucksters. The GAO report that Sessions commissioned is a good example. After all, there are plenty of reasons already to dislike Obamacare if you’re so inclined. It’s self-destructive to waste time on things that just make you look dumb and don’t really help your cause anyway. Smarter conservatives, please.

  • Recession? What Recession?


    Regular readers of this blog will find this no surprise, but it’s nice to see it on the front page of a daily newspaper:

    The federal government, the nation’s largest consumer and investor, is cutting back at a pace exceeded in the last half-century only by the military demobilizations after the Vietnam War and the cold war….Federal, state and local governments now employ 500,000 fewer workers than they did on the eve of the recession in 2007, the longest and deepest decline in total government employment since the aftermath of World War II.

    ….The spending cutbacks and actions to raise taxes could reduce growth by roughly 1.5 percentage points this year, according to the Congressional Budget Office, leaving the sluggish economy operating well below capacity.

    The basic chart is below. If the recession of 2007-08 had been a normal one, the cutbacks we’re seeing now might have been justified after the initial round of stimulus. But it wasn’t a normal one. It was the deepest economic slowdown since the Great Depression. It’s suicidal that we pulled back so soon.

  • 9 Surprising Facts About Junk Food

    Abandon all hope, all ye who enter here. <a href="http://www.flickr.com/photos/trustypics/5623287052/">Trustypics</a>/Flickr


    Riffing on his new book Salt Sugar Fat: How the Food Giants Hooked Us, ace New York Times investigative reporter Michael Moss is suddenly everywhere—he’s out with a blockbuster article in the Times Magazine and just appeared on Fresh Air.

    I haven’t had a chance to read the book yet, but I’ve skimmed it, and it looks excellent. Here are nine quick takeaways:

    1. The Cheeto is a modern miracle. Made of corn, fat, and something called “cheese seasoning” (which itself is made of 11 ingredients, including canola oil and artificial color “yellow 6”), this ever-popular snack, which now comes in no fewer than 17 different flavors, may be the food industry’s creation par excellence. Here’s Moss:

    “This,” Witherly [a food scientist] said, “is one of the most marvelously constructed foods on the planet, in terms of pure pleasure.” He ticked off a dozen attributes of the Cheetos that make the brain say more. But the one he focused on most was the puff’s uncanny ability to melt in the mouth. “It’s called vanishing caloric density,” Witherly said. “If something melts down quickly, your brain thinks that there’s no calories in it…you can just keep eating it forever.”   

    2. Subverting “sensory-specific satiety” is the key to junk-food success. Moss identifies this key food industry concept as “the tendency for big, distinct flavors to overwhelm the brain, which responds by depressing your desire to have more.” The key is to create recipes that get around it. Moss explains:

    Sensory-specific satiety also became a guiding principle for the processed-food industry. The biggest hits—be they Coca-Cola or Doritos —owe their success to complex formulas that pique the taste buds enough to be alluring but don’t have a distinct, overriding single flavor that tells the brain to stop eating.       

    3. At least since 1999, the industry has known its products are contributing to a massive public-health crisis. Moss’ piece opens with a secret meeting that year of the industry’s top executives wherein evidence of severe harm from the industry’s aggressive marketing of junk food—and a comparison to the tobacco industry—was laid out by concerned midlevel execs. The CEOs explicitly decided to ignore the evidence and reject a plea for reform, Moss reports. Instead, they focused their companies on more of the same.

    4. Like the agrichemical industry, the food industry has become adept at selling questionable solutions to the problems it has generated. Take the industry’s habit of blasting everything with loads of salt. Apparently, baby boomers—a major target of the industry’s snack marketing efforts—are expressing interest in cutting back on salt. Problem? No, opportunity! Here’s Moss, reporting on a recent presentation by Frito Lay (a subsidiary of Pepsi) execs to investors:

    The Frito-Lay executives also spoke of the company’s ongoing pursuit of a “designer sodium,” which they hoped, in the near future, would take their sodium loads down by 40 percent. No need to worry about lost sales there, the company’s C.E.O., Al Carey, assured their investors. The boomers would see less salt as the green light to snack like never before.

    5. First you find a product that sells, then you find the right cheap ingredients to make it profitable. The rise of Lunchables, the massively profitable school lunch product Philip Morris launched in the 1980s, illustrates a key insight into how the food system works. Here it is, emphasis added:

    The trays flew off the grocery-store shelves. Sales hit a phenomenal $218 million in the first 12 months, more than anyone was prepared for. This only brought Drane [the Philip Morris exec who invented Lunchables in the 1980s] his next crisis. The production costs were so high that they were losing money with each tray they produced. So Drane flew to New York, where he met with Philip Morris officials who promised to give him the money he needed to keep it going. “The hard thing is to figure out something that will sell,” he was told. “You’ll figure out how to get the cost right.” Projected to lose $6 million in 1991, the trays instead broke even; the next year, they earned $8 million.

    Those cheap ingredients are, of course, mainly iterations of corn and soy—the two crops that cover more than half, and growing, of US farmland, propped up by US farm policy. That’s where the interests of Big Food and Big Ag intersect. And a topic for another post.

    6. Your brain reacts to sugar and cocaine in very similar ways. You know how people will sometimes call food they like a lot “crack”? E.g,. “Hey, this roasted broccoli is really good—it’s veggie crack!” Turns out, in the case of sugary foods, it’s more than just a metaphor. Moss:

    Some of the largest companies are now using brain scans to study how we react neurologically to certain foods, especially to sugar. They’ve discovered the brain lights up for sugar the same way it does for cocaine, and this knowledge is useful, not only for formulating foods. The world’s largest ice cream maker, Unilever, for instance, parlayed its brain research into a brilliant marketing campaign that sells the eating of ice cream as “scientifically proven” way to make ourselves happy.

    7. “Food manufacturers now spend nearly twice as much money on advertising their [breakfast] cereals as they do on the ingredients that go into them.” This fact may be well known to others, but it dropped my jaw.

    8. Tang wasn’t developed for astronauts. I grew up thinking the treacly orange stuff somehow grew out of the US space program (which added to its appeal). Moss set me straight. Turns out, it grew out of the efforts of a giant company called General Foods to think outside the cereal box in marketing breakfast foods to kids through their mothers in the 1950s. The idea was to create a “synthetic juice” to eliminate the drudgery of making orange juice from concentrate or—gasp—squeezing it from fresh oranges. Early efforts were promising but unsuccessful—they had a “good mouthfeel,” but tasted “horribly bitter and metallic.” A company engineer got to the root of the problem—the technicians had been adding a range of vitamins and minerals in an attempt to replicate the nutritional composition of orange juice. By eliminating all of the nutrient additives besides vitamin C—which imparts a tart flavor that jibes with orange juice—the company came up with a winner, launched in 1958.

    And there actually is an after-the-fact space angle—and it’s scatological:

    NASA, the space program, needed a drink that would add little bulk to the digestion, given the toilet constraints of space. Real orange juice has too much bulky fiber in its pulp. Tang, however, was perfect—what technologists call a “low-residue” food.

    NASA embraced Tang for its orbit around Earth in 1962, giving the instant drink a lingering marketing boost—removing untold nutrients and fiber from the US diet.

    9. Many of the cereals of my childhood were composed of 50 percent sugar or more. I also loved sugary cereals as a kid. Damn, was I eating a lot of sugar back then. Moss, reporting on a cereal test conducted in 1975:

    A third of the brands had sugar levels between 10 and 25 percent. Another third ranged to an alarming 50 percent, and 11 climbed higher still—with one cereal, Super Orange Crisps, packing a sugar load of 70.8 percent.

  • Presidential Non-Power


    In his column today, David Ignatius is pretty good about blaming our recent string of fiscal standoffs on the recklessness of congressional Republicans. But then he ends with this:

    So how can we get these incapacitated drivers to stop before they do any more damage? If this were really a case of chronic drinkers, the answer would be an intervention to keep them off the road. In politics, the public gets to intervene through elections. We just had one, and the Republicans lost, big time. Yet it didn’t seem to make much difference. The House Republicans are still grabbing for the wheel, and the car is rumbling toward trouble.

    Obama tries everything to gain control — except a clear, firm presidential statement that speaks to everyone onboard, those who voted for him and those who didn’t — that could get the country where it needs to go.

    A “firm presidential statement”? Seriously? Where do people come up with this stuff? Obama has made dozens of firm presidential statements, and it’s had precisely zero effect. Republicans couldn’t care less about his firm presidential statements.

    There’s a lot of this going around these days, the idea that presidents can magically work their will on a hostile Congress if they’re simply strong enough. This has never really been true, and it’s certainly not true of the 113th Congress, the most hostile in living memory. It’s weird that so many people seem to think otherwise.

  • It Was Eric Cantor Who Killed the Debt Ceiling Deal


    Everyone and his brother has already blogged about Ryan Lizza’s profile of Eric Cantor in the New Yorker this week, but it’s only just now that its real meaning has struck me. Maybe I’m just slow. The subject at hand is the debt ceiling talks in July 2011, and before we get to Lizza, here’s the basic timeline:

    July 17: Cantor and John Boehner meet in the White House to talk with Tim Geithner about how a tax reform package could raise $800 billion as part of a “grand bargain” deficit reduction plan.

    July 19: The Gang of Six in the Senate releases a bipartisan plan that includes over $1 trillion in tax increases.

    July 20: Congressional Democrats start to revolt. They figure that if a bunch of Republicans can sign on to a plan with over $1 trillion in tax increases, why is Obama settling for only $800 billion?

    July 21: Obama calls Boehner and asks him for $400 billion in additional revenue.

    Lizza tells us what happened next:

    As Obama waited by the phone for a response from the Speaker, Cantor struck. Cantor told me that it was a “fair assessment” that he talked Boehner out of accepting Obama’s deal. He said he told Boehner that it would be better, instead, to take the issues of taxes and spending to the voters and “have it out” with the Democrats in the election. Why give Obama an enormous political victory, and potentially help him win reëlection, when they might be able to negotiate a more favorable deal with a new Republican President? Boehner told Obama there was no deal. Instead of a Grand Bargain, Cantor and the House Republicans made a grand bet.

    Here’s why this timeline is important. It’s been an article of faith among conservatives that the grand bargain collapsed because Obama got greedy and asked for more revenue. And there’s certainly a kernel of truth to that: a $1.2 trillion revenue increase was obviously a tougher lift for Boehner than an $800 billion increase.

    But based on Cantor’s own testimony to Lizza, that wasn’t really what killed the deal. Regardless of the size of the revenue increase, Cantor just flatly didn’t want to reach an agreement. He didn’t want to give Obama a political win, and figured that a failed deal would hurt Obama enough that Republicans could win the presidency and then write their own bill. He persuaded Boehner to go along, and the deal was dead.

    Bottom line: It wasn’t Obama’s $400 billion that killed the deal. It was Eric Cantor who killed the deal. We now have that straight from the horse’s mouth.

  • Today You Lost Yet Another Shred of Privacy


    The Supreme Court refused today to rule on the merits in a case that questioned whether the government can intercept international calls by American citizens:

    Writing for the majority, Justice Samuel A. Alito Jr. said that the journalists, lawyers and human rights advocates who challenged the constitutionality of the law could not show they had been harmed by it and so lacked standing to sue. Their fear that they would be subject to surveillance in the future was too speculative to establish standing, he wrote.

    In other words, it doesn’t matter if the law is actually constitutional or not. So as long as the government does a good job of keeping its wiretaps secret, no one will ever have standing to sue and the law will remain on the books. Nice work. Scott Lemieux has more here.

  • We’re 60 Percent of the Way to Simpson-Bowles!


    UPDATE: Sorry, I screwed up here. I didn’t account properly for the total ten-year effect of Simpson-Bowles, and I didn’t adjust for different baselines. When you do this, SB produces $6.3 trillion in deficit reduction. We’re about 60 percent of the way there, not 90 percent. More here.


    This is just a quick arithmetic reminder. If the sequester goes into effect, here’s how we’ve done on deficit reduction over the past few years:

    • 2010 continuing resolutions: $450 billion
    • FY2011 budget: $200 billion
    • Budget Control Act: $960 billion
    • Fiscal cliff deal: $840 billion
    • Sequester: $1.2 trillion
    • Total: $3.6 trillion

    The original Simpson-Bowles plan, which is Washington’s holy grail, called for $4.1 trillion in deficit reduction. All calculations include debt service savings, so this is an apples-to-apples comparison.

    If you want to move the goalposts, feel free. But facts are facts: by this time next week we will have achieved very nearly the total amount of deficit reduction that everyone was gaga about a mere two years ago—more than 80 percent of it from spending cuts. It’s truly unfortunate that we’ve been so fixated on this, since we would have been much better off investing for the future and leaving deficit reduction for later, but that’s water under the bridge. Love it or hate it, over the past 27 months we’ve accomplished nearly 90 percent of the deficit reduction everyone wanted.

    So we’re all happy about this, right? Right?

  • It’s Time to Call a Filibuster a Filibuster


    It looks like Chuck Hagel is finally going to be confirmed as Secretary of Defense. Jonathan Bernstein addresses the journalistic conundrum involved in this:

    The trick for reporters is how to write about and talk about what’s happened.

    Was there a filibuster?

    Yes. Of course.

    One more time: requiring 60 is a filibuster. Every Republican supports that standard. There are no Republicans who believe that 60 should never or only rarely be invoked; the only question is whether, in this particular case, any particular case, they will support the filibuster. That there is a filibuster, on everything, is both assumed and institutionalized.

    I would really like to see this become a standard part of usage guides on copy desks everywhere. We can tie ourselves in knots forever explaining the technical aspects of “what really happened” and passing it all off as some kind of arcane procedural issue. It’s time to stop it. If the minority party demands a 60-vote margin to pass something, they’re conducting a filibuster. In the modern Senate, that’s the most sensible way of describing it, and it’s the one most comprehensible to the average reader. It’s long past time to adopt this as the standard way of describing these things.

  • Robotic Surgery and the Low End of the Learning Curve


    Austin Frakt points us today to a new study that compares the effectiveness of robotically assisted hysterectomies vs. laparoscopic surgery. “Both approaches provide benefits compared with open surgery,” says an editorial in JAMA, “including smaller incisions, shorter hospital stays, less postoperative pain, and possibly quicker return to function.” But the robotically-assisted surgery costs more without providing any improvement in outcomes. “On these results alone,” says Austin, “the call is a simple one. At current prices and on the basis of health outcomes, robotic hysterectomies are not worth the cost.”

    Normally, I’d be jumping up and down to agree. But this time, I think there’s reason to pause. Why? Because of this from the JAMA editorial:

    Robotic surgery may have a shorter learning curve than laparoscopic surgery, making it an enabling technology that allows surgeons otherwise unable to perform minimally invasive surgery to offer this benefit to their patients.

    This is the future of surgery, and I suspect there may be a real benefit to rolling it out widely, getting lots of surgeons trained to use it, and producing commercial pressure to constantly improve the technology. I’m not trying to make excuses for rosy advertising promises or hospitals that hype their results to push patients into a more expensive procedure, but at the same time, this strikes me as qualitatively different from, say, billion-dollar proton beam facilities to treat cancer. In the long run, robotic surgery is likely to make medicine cheaper, safer, and more widely available worldwide, and the sooner we get to this future, the better off we are. A bit of a gold-rush mentality while we’re still at the low end of the learning curve might be the price we pay for this.

    I have a feeling my point is going to be misunderstood here. I also have a feeling it’s hopeless to add a whole string of caveats. Just try to take this in the spirit in which it’s offered, OK?

  • Jack Lew’s Deal Explained


    Yesterday I asked for an innocent explanation of Jack Lew’s deal with Citi, which guaranteed him a bonus if he left the company for a senior position with the federal government. Mark Kleiman, who says Lew is an old friend, suggests that it all has to do with the fact that bonuses are normally deferred (paid at the end of the year or even further out), which puts firms in a quandary if someone like Lew leaves for public service. Do they risk looking miserly by refusing to pay out a bonus that’s already been earned, or do they make a decision to pay it, which would look a bit like a bribe?

    So if a firm hires someone with a public-service background and ambitions to go back into government, it makes sense to negotiate a severance bonus up front, specifically in case the person leaves to take a senior Federal job. That way the person is protected against a big financial hit if such a job comes through….while the firm avoids the problem of voluntarily either paying or not paying a big bonus to someone who will exercise power over it in the future.

    That’s the deal Jack Lew negotiated with CitiGroup, and that Rupert Mudoch’s character assassins at the Wall Street Journal want to make a scandal out of. And yet Kevin Drum wonders what the innocent explanation for such a deal might be.

    In fact, what would be hard would be inventing a guilty explanation. If Citi wanted to grease the palm of someone departing throug [sic] the revolving door, there would have been no need to make the deal in advance, or in writing. The only purpose of doing so would have been to avoid what otherwise would have been a confict of interest.

    That makes sense. And I’d add something to this: if this is the explanation, then it’s obviously standard practice on Wall Street, something that the, ahem, Wall Street Journal would know perfectly well. But that didn’t stop them.

  • David Brooks Has a Deal for President Obama


    After last week’s debacle, where he got hammered for claiming that Barack Obama had no plan to replace the sequester, David Brooks says today that “Humiliation is a good teacher.” This means that in this week’s column we get a glimpse of the good Brooks.

    And the thing is, when Brooks is good, he can be genuinely interesting. Today he goes beyond the sequester to tell us what kind of grand bargain he wishes Obama would fight for. Here it is:

    My dream Obama would nurture investment in three ways. First, he would take spending that currently goes to the affluent elderly and redirect it to the young and the struggling. He would build on the means-testing Medicare idea that Yuval Levin described recently in The Times. Older people with higher lifetime earnings would have fewer benefits, and they wouldn’t kick in until age 70. That money could be used to reduce our children’s debt burden and to fund early education, community colleges, research and infrastructure projects.

    ….Second, Obama could nurture investment by starting a debate on the sort of consumption tax plan Michael Graetz describes in his book “100 Million Unnecessary Returns”: Enact a value-added tax, use money from that tax to finance an income tax exemption of $100,000, cut the corporate tax rate to 15 percent, replace the earned-income tax credit with payroll tax relief and debit cards.

    ….Third, Obama could talk obsessively about family structure and social repair.

    You know what? I’d mostly support this. The devil is in the details, of course, and if Brooks and I really got into the weeds we’d end up disagreeing about a lot. Still, if something like this deal were on the table, I’d probably take it. I’d trade lower benefits for well-off retirees for universal pre-K. A progressive VAT on income up to $100,000 might be a good idea if the system as a whole raised more revenue and were at least as progressive as the current one. And although I don’t think presidential yakking really does much good, I’d be perfectly happy to shine the White House spotlight on family structure and social repair (even if I’m not entirely sure what Brooks means by this).

    But how do we get there? Brooks thinks it would be hard to get liberals on board with this, and he’s probably right about that. But that’s hardly worth worrying about, since conservatives would be loudly and adamantly dead set against every single aspect of his proposal. They don’t want universal pre-K; they don’t want to spend more on a bunch of lefty universities; they don’t really care about infrastructure; and they don’t want a VAT. Aside from the yakking, which I suppose they’d support as long it was an excuse to decry liberal decadence, there’s simply nothing about this deal they’d support.

    If there were a Republican version of the DLC, ideas like this might have a place to gain a toehold. Until then, though, conservative reformer types like Brooks, David Frum, and Ross Douthat simply aren’t talking to anyone. The actual existing Republican Party is just flatly uninterested in their ideas. Unfortunately, the GOP has almost completely purged the centrist impulse that led Democrats to start up the DLC in the 80s, so it’s not clear where one would come from on the right. Maybe that’s something Brooks could take up in a future column.

  • Eat Your Nuts!


    Today’s newspapers are all running front-page stories about a new study showing the benefits of a Mediterranean diet. However, one of Aaron Carroll’s sharp-eyed readers pointed out that Table S5 in the appendix shows that the only truly big difference between the test group and the control group was their consumption of olive oil and nuts, which participants in the test group were given free. Sure, enough, if you read down to the very end of the report, the authors say this:

    The interventions were intended to improve the overall dietary pattern, but the major between-group differences involved the supplemental items. Thus, extra-virgin olive oil and nuts were probably responsible for most of the observed benefits of the Mediterranean diets.

    I’d add one more thing. The researchers were studying the frequency of “end point” events: heart attacks, strokes, and deaths. Here are the raw numbers: in the test group (Mediterranean diet + nuts), the total number of all those events over the period of the study was 3.8 percent. In the control group it was 4.4 percent.

    Now, these are statistically significant and probably represent a genuine result. But don’t get too excited. The participants were all over 55 and had either Type 2 diabetes or three major risk factors for cardivascular disease. So you’d expect them to be teetering on the edge of one of these end point events anyway. But even at that, the additional risk over five years from eating whatever you wanted was 0.6 percentage points. That’s not really a helluva lot.