Kevin Drum - March 2013

Paul Ryan Hates Obamacare, But Loves Obamacare's Taxes

| Mon Mar. 11, 2013 2:43 PM EDT

Paul Ryan is, inevitably, in the news again. Every year around this time he releases his new budget roadmap, and every year it's roughly the same as ever but with just a few changes for everyone to chew over endlessly. This year, the chattering classes are chattering over the startling news that his budget only gets to balance by repealing Obamacare, but Ezra Klein says that's not news. In fact, it's not even true. It's worse than that:

Every Ryan budget since the passage of Obamacare has assumed the repeal of Obamacare. Kinda. Ryan's version of repeal means getting rid of all the parts that spend money to give people health insurance but keeping the tax increases and the Medicare cuts that pays for that health insurance, as without those policies, it is very, very difficult for Ryan to hit his deficit-reduction targets.

Last year's budget also kept Obamacare's tax increases and Medicare cuts. Then Ryan became a VP candidate, and this was a big problem. So he switched to opposing Obamacare with no exceptions. Now he's once again just a plain old congressman who needs to balance the budget, so we're back to Ryan 1.0.

Will it last? Who knows. Ryan's voucher premium support plan has morphed a bit from year to year, so it will be interesting to see which way it morphs this year. Unlike some people, though, I don't think Ryan will abandon his usual pledge not to change Medicare for anyone over age 55. That risks pissing off actual Republican voters who only want Medicare to get stingier for the young folks. Deficit apocalypse or not, they certainly don't want it to change for them.

This pretty much explains all of politics, by the way.

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University Life in the 21st Century

| Mon Mar. 11, 2013 2:10 PM EDT

Over at Unqualified Offerings, Thoreau has a short essay about the relative advantages enjoyed by college students whose parents also went to college. I don't have any special comment on his main point, but I was sort of fascinated by this:

To the extent that I’ve interacted with parents, I’m always fascinated by the contrast between the questions that they ask and my own inside perceptions of the system. My students’ parents went to school before computers were commonplace. Their parents attended college back when faculty could give out 1-page syllabi instead of long documents with disclaimers and policy reminders. Hell, even when I went to college, professors just said “Write an essay on this”, not “Here is a detailed grading rubric for the essay, which you will no doubt try to rules-lawyer me on, hence I had the rubric inspected by experts.”

I don't have kids, but he's basically talking about my generation. My professors did indeed hand out 1-page sylliabi and tell us to write essays of a certain length without much more guidance than that. But, um, I gather this is no longer true? Would any university professor types care to comment on this? I didn't realize that this particular aspect of college life had changed so much.

The Friday Cat Blogging Origin Story—Part 2

| Mon Mar. 11, 2013 12:41 PM EDT

The origin story of Friday Cat Blogging is a three-part epic. Four days ago was the 10th anniversary of Part 1: the day I first posted a picture of one of my cats. Today is the 10th anniversary of Part 2: the day I first posted pictures of both of my cats and promised to do more of this in the future. "Thanks to the miracle of digital photography," I explained, "I can take literally endless pictures of my cats and it costs me absolutely nothing. You, of course, are the beneficiaries of this technological wizardry."

And it's true: you have been the beneficiaries of endless cat blogging ever since. Still, this isn't yet Friday Cat Blogging, merely a promise to post more pictures of cats. The 10th anniversary of that fateful decision comes on Thursday. You are all atingle over this, aren't you?

NOTE: Yes, the 10th anniversary of Friday Cat Blogging comes on a Thursday. It's annoying. But what can you do?

After Four Grueling Months, the GOP's Soul Searching is Just About Over

| Mon Mar. 11, 2013 12:23 PM EDT

The Republican Party is back! And the press corps is getting ready to tell you all about it. Ed Kilgore has more.

How Raising the Retirement Age Screws the Working Poor

| Mon Mar. 11, 2013 11:39 AM EDT

Those of you who are careful readers of this blog are already aware that in recent years life expectancy has risen way more for richer people than for poorer people. The basic chart is here. Today, however, the Washington Post puts this into more concrete terms by comparing life expectancies in two Florida counties that are right next to each other. St. Johns is a well-off coastal county, while Putnam is a more working class inland county. Here's their map:

The article makes the obvious point about how this affects the debate over whether to raise the Social Security retirement age:

The widening gap in life expectancy between these two adjacent Florida counties reflects perhaps the starkest outcome of the nation’s growing economic inequality: Even as the nation’s life expectancy has marched steadily upward, reaching 78.5 years in 2009, a growing body of research shows that those gains are going mostly to those at the upper end of the income ladder.

The tightening economic connection to longevity has profound implications for the simmering debate about trimming the nation’s entitlement programs. Citing rising life expectancy, influential voices including the Simpson-Bowles deficit reduction commission, the Business Roundtable and lawmakers on both sides of the aisle have argued that it makes sense to raise the eligibility age for Social Security and Medicare.

But raising the eligibility ages — currently 65 for Medicare and moving toward 67 for full Social Security benefits — would mean fewer benefits for lower-income workers, who typically die younger than those who make more.

“People who are shorter-lived tend to make less, which means that if you raise the retirement age, low-income populations would be subsidizing the lives of higher-income people,” said Maya Rockeymoore, president and chief executive of Global Policy Solutions, a public policy consultancy. “Whenever I hear a policymaker say people are living longer as a justification for raising the retirement age, I immediately think they don’t understand the research or, worse, they are willfully ignoring what the data say.

Bottom line: working class and middle class workers haven't seen much increase in their life expectancies over the past few decades. So if you raise the retirement age, you're effectively shortening their retirements, an especially foul blow since they're the ones with the shortest life spans to begin with.

So why do so many people keep pushing this idea? I'm going to be charitable and say that it's a combination of ignorance and malice. Experts all understand how life expectancy works, but I imagine there are a lot of pundits and politicians who still haven't seen the data on how it's affected by income. At the same time, I suspect that plenty of pundits and politicians have figured it out, but just don't care. The prospect of screwing the poor simply doesn't bother them much.

Given the trends of the past few decades, the obvious way to address Social Security's funding problems is to increase benefits to the relatively poor, whose benefits are low and who live shorter lives in the first place, and to reduce benefits for the well off. At the same time, increasing revenue by raising the income cap would mostly hit the upper middle class and the rich, which is precisely the population that's (a) benefited the most from rising life spans, (b) seen their incomes increase the most, and (c) got more retirement resources at their disposal—including the option of retiring later, since many of them work at desk jobs that don't tax their bodies. That's the right basic approach. Raising the retirement age makes a nice sound bite, but it's one of the worst and least fair ways imaginable of tackling Social Security's problems.

Now that the Washington Post has run this piece on their news pages, I assume their editorial board no longer has any excuse for ignoring this. Right?

Yet More Investment Bank Scumbaggery Revealed

| Mon Mar. 11, 2013 10:57 AM EDT

I learned something new this morning—sort of. Felix Salmon points me toward a Joe Nocera column that sheds light on the eternal question of whether investment banks rip off hot new companies by pricing their IPOs too low. Felix says he used to think the answer was no: why wouldn't a bank price the shares as high as it could, since their fee is a percentage of the total value of the deal? Back during the dotcom boom, however, the conspiracy-minded had an answer: investment banks were more interested in parceling out cheap shares in hot companies to favored clients, who would shower them with extra business in return. Sure, they lost a little money in IPO fees, but more than made it up in other commissions. The whole thing was a racket that cost startup companies a bundle.

Back then, that was for the conspiracy minded. Today, Nocera has gotten hold of some court documents that were supposed to be under seal but were mistakenly left public. They're from an ancient lawsuit filed by eToys against Goldman Sachs, and guess what?

What they clearly show is that Goldman knew exactly what it was doing when it underpriced the eToys I.P.O. — and many others as well....Goldman carefully calculated the first-day gains reaped by its investment clients. After compiling the numbers in something it called a trade-up report, the Goldman sales force would call on clients, show them how much they had made from Goldman’s I.P.O.’s and demand that they reward Goldman with increased business. It was not unusual for Goldman sales representatives to ask that 30 to 50 percent of the first-day profits be returned to Goldman via commissions, according to depositions given in the case.

“What specifically do you recall” your Goldman broker wanting, asked one of the plaintiffs’ lawyers in a deposition with an investor named Andrew Hale Siegal. “You made $50,000, how about $25,000 back?” came the answer. “You know, you made a killing.”

....In one e-mail, a Goldman Sachs executive named David Dechman described hot I.P.O. deals as “a currency.” He asked, “How should we allocate between the various Firm businesses to maximize value to GS?”

Robert Steel, who was then co-head of equity sales at Goldman Sachs and is now one of New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg’s top deputies, sent an e-mail to one of the firm’s biggest clients, Putnam Investments in Boston, in which he wrote bluntly, “It is my view that we should be rewarded with additional secondary business for offering access to capital market product” — like hot I.P.O.’s.

Felix does some arithmetic to show just how lucrative this kind of operation can be, and also offers a few more tidbits from the court documents. So now we know.

Like I said, in one way this is nothing new. It was common knowledge in the 90s that investment banks used IPO allocations as a kind of currency with their biggest clients. It's just that there was never smoking-gun proof of this. Now there is.

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Avoiding Confusion About Drone Assassinations in One Easy Step

| Mon Mar. 11, 2013 1:05 AM EDT

The New York Times has a long piece this weekend about Anwar al-Awlaki, the New Mexico native who joined al-Qaeda and was killed in 2011 by a drone attack. Part of the piece is about the legal justification for killing an American citizen without due process, which was laid out first in a short memorandum written by David Barron and Martin Lederman and then again in a longer memorandum:

Due to return to academia in the fall of 2010, the two lawyers finished their second Awlaki memorandum, whose reasoning was widely approved by other administration lawyers, that summer. It had ballooned to about 63 pages but remained narrowly tailored to Mr. Awlaki’s circumstances, blessing lethal force against him without addressing whether it would also be permissible to kill citizens, like low-ranking members of Al Qaeda, in other situations.

Nearly three years later, a version of the legal analysis portions would become public in the “white paper,” which stripped out all references to Mr. Awlaki while retaining echoes, like its discussion of a generic “senior operational leader.” Divorced from its original context and misunderstood as a general statement about the scope and limits of the government’s authority to kill citizens, the free-floating reasoning would lead to widespread confusion.

I would just like to say that there's an easy way to restore the memorandum's original context and eliminate any possible misunderstanding about the scope and limits of the government's authority to kill citizens. Right?

60 Minutes Sandberg Interview Kinda Makes Sandberg's Point

| Mon Mar. 11, 2013 12:44 AM EDT

This passage from tonight's 60 Minutes interview with Sheryl Sandberg, the Facebook COO who just published Lean In, was striking: 

Norah O'Donnell: You know, Sheryl, people are going to say, "Oh she's got a charmed life, She went to Harvard. She's a billionaire."

Sheryl Sandberg: Yep.

Norah O'Donnell: "And she's telling me what I should do?" Do they have a point?

Sheryl Sandberg: I'm not trying to say that everything I can do everyone can do. But I do believe that these messages are completely universal.

....Norah O'Donnell: And for those who say, "Easy for you to say?"

Sheryl Sandberg: It is easier for me to say this. And that's why I'm saying it.

Can you imagine anyone posing questions like these to Richard Branson or Jack Welch? Last I looked, they were pretty rich too, and they've also written bestselling books providing advice on business and life. Nobody ever asks them why they think they can offer advice to the masses from their lofty perches, but apparently it feels natural to ask Sandberg these questions just because her primary audience is other women. Funny that.

I Have a Wee Question of Digital Courtesy

| Sun Mar. 10, 2013 9:34 PM EDT

Nick Bilton writes today about various things that were once polite, but in an increasingly digital age have become inconsiderate. For example:

Then there is voice mail, another impolite way of trying to connect with someone. Think of how long it takes to access your voice mail and listen to one of those long-winded messages. “Hi, this is so-and-so….” In text messages, you don’t have to declare who you are, or even say hello. E-mail, too, leaves something to be desired, with subject lines and “hi” and “bye,” because the communication could happen faster by text. And then there are the worst offenders of all: those who leave a voice mail message and then e-mail to tell you they left a voice mail message.

My father learned this lesson last year after leaving me a dozen voice mail messages, none of which I listened to. Exasperated, he called my sister to complain that I never returned his calls. “Why are you leaving him voice mails?” my sister asked. “No one listens to voice mail anymore. Just text him.”

I know it's ancient news that all the young 'uns have abandoned voice mail. Why, it can take 20 or 30 seconds to listen to a single message! Who's got time for that kind of nonsense when there are Facebook timelines to update and Foursquare venues to check in to?

But can I turn this around? If you refuse to listen to voice mail, wouldn't it be polite to make that clear, either by turning off your voice mail box so that callers can't leave you messages, or by recording an outgoing message that tells callers they'd better text or email if they really want to get hold of you? If your outgoing message says "Hi, leave a message and I'll call you back," is it really unreasonable for someone to leave a message and expect you to call back?

Chuck, Chuck, Chuck....What Are You Thinking?

| Sun Mar. 10, 2013 8:57 PM EDT

For a guy who's basically my ideological ally, Chuck Schumer sure does piss me off a lot. I can almost forgive a senator from New York for doing Wall Street's bidding so often, but I'm not sure I can forgive this.