Kevin Drum - April 2013

I Doubt That Obama Really Expects a Grand Bargain With Republicans

| Fri Apr. 5, 2013 12:14 PM EDT

Greg Sargent tries to explain White House thinking on their decision to embrace entitlement cuts in next week's budget proposal:

They believe a Grand Bargain is good for Democrats in general, because it essentially would lock in a medium-term agreement over core disputes — about the safety net and about the size of government, and who should pay for it — that have produced a debilitating stalemate in Washington.

Yes, Republicans would continue railing about government spending, the thinking goes, but no one would listen, since they would have already endorsed a deal stabilizing the deficit. This would deprive Republicans of the ability to focus attention on one of their core targets — Big Government — as a way to avoid grappling with other issues, such as jobs and long-term middle class economic security, immigration, guns, and perhaps even climate change. Reaching a deal on the deficit will force Republicans to confront those problems more directly and to choose between real cooperation on them or continue to calcify as a hidebound, reactionary party incapable of addressing major challenges facing the country.

Yeah, maybe. Of course, that's also a pretty good reason for Republicans to refuse to cut a deal. Why bother if all it does is pave the way for Obama to spend lots of time on wedge issues that are good for Democrats and bad for them?

The truth is that, for the most part, the deficit isn't a real issue for Republicans. They don't want to raise taxes; they don't want to cut defense spending; they don't want to cut entitlement spending on seniors (the core of their base); and cutting future entitlements doesn't affect the deficit any time soon. The only thing left is cutting spending on the poor, and although Republicans think that's a fine idea, even they can't cut social welfare spending enough to have a serious impact on the deficit.

So it's mostly a charade. And it's a good one! One of the very best, in fact. Cutting the deficit polls well, it lends itself nicely to demagoguery, and it's an all-purpose excuse to oppose any spending proposals they don't like. So why on earth would you cut a deal to take it off the table? That would be crazy. And if they're forced to swallow a tax increase as well, that makes it even crazier. There's literally no benefit at all in this for Republicans.

So they won't do it. Obama's real hope—since I assume he's not an idiot and knows all this perfectly well—is that Republicans will indeed refuse to make a deal, and, as Sargent suggests, this could turn the public against them in the 2014 midterms. I suppose that's possible, depending on how well he plays his hand. It's certainly more possible than assuming that Republicans will voluntarily commit electoral suicide by agreeing to a deal.

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Obama Plans to Offer Very Public Entitlement Cuts in Budget Next Week

| Fri Apr. 5, 2013 11:15 AM EDT

President Obama's long-delayed budget will finally make it to Congress next week. Jackie Calmes reports:

In a significant shift in fiscal strategy, Mr. Obama on Wednesday will send a budget plan to Capitol Hill that departs from the usual presidential wish list that Republicans typically declare dead on arrival. Instead it will embody the final compromise offer that he made to Speaker John A. Boehner late last year, before Mr. Boehner abandoned negotiations in opposition to the president’s demand for higher taxes from wealthy individuals and some corporations.

Congressional Republicans have dug in against any new tax revenues after higher taxes for the affluent were approved at the start of the year. The administration’s hope is to create cracks in Republicans’ antitax resistance, especially in the Senate, as constituents complain about the across-the-board cuts in military and domestic programs that took effect March 1.

It's not clear precisely what this means, but it sounds as if it mostly embodies the president's sequester-replacement plan that's been on offer for the past two months, which includes about $1.1 trillion in spending cuts over ten years and $700 billion in new revenue. Among other things, this plan offers to cut Medicare by reducing reimbursement levels and cut Social Security by adopting chained CPI. Presumably, however, it will present those cuts in considerably more detail than Obama has done before.

This will be an interesting test of the theory that one of the things preventing a deal has been simple Republican ignorance of what Obama has offered. Once these things are in the official budget, there's simply no way to ignore them. They'll get a ton of coverage—including massive outrage from the liberal base—and there will be enough detail that even Bill O'Reilly should be satisfied that Obama is offering a "real plan." The fact that Obama is proposing serious cuts in entitlements will finally be impossible to ignore.

Will this pave the way for a deal? I have my doubts, because I never thought that ignorance was truly a roadblock. Any Republican paying even minimal attention knew what Obama was offering earlier this year, and the ones not paying minimal attention simply didn't want to know. Their ignorance was mostly a deliberate strategic choice: it allowed them to continue railing against Obama without having to engage with the facts of what he was offering, and that was pretty convenient for most of them. This option will be taken away next week, but since it was never the true roadblock, they'll simply switch to other objections.

At least, that's my guess. As a strategy to change the media narrative, this might work, but as a strategy to change Republican priorities, it won't. It will simply be the latest in a long line of preemptive concessions, none of which have worked before. Republicans will treat the spending cuts as a new baseline to negotiate down from, while treating the revenue increases as dead on arrival.

But I might be wrong! Certainly it will change the tone of the conversation, and the more outraged liberals get about this the better it will be for Obama. Next week we'll start to find out.

UPDATE: It turns out we don't have to wait until next week after all. All we have to do is read Politico right now:

House Speaker John Boehner immediately dismissed President Barack Obama’s package of significant new entitlement cuts tied to new tax revenues, calling them “no way to lead and move the country forward.....Boehner said he will not consider new revenues as part of the deal, arguing that “modest” entitlement savings should not “be held hostage for more tax hikes.”

Quite a shocker, no?

Chart of the Day: Net New Jobs in March

| Fri Apr. 5, 2013 10:41 AM EDT

The American economy added 88,000 new jobs last month, but about 90,000 of those jobs were needed just to keep up with population growth, so net job growth was actually slightly negative at -2,000 jobs. That's terrible. It's yet another spring swoon, but even earlier than usual. Ever since the end of the Great Recession we've been stuck in an odd pattern where employment growth looks promising in winter and then falls off a cliff in spring, but usually the dropoff doesn't happen until April or May. We're early this year.

Workers continued to drop out of the workforce in large numbers, so the labor force participation rate declined by 0.2 percentage points to 63.3 percent. As a result, despite the terrible jobs numbers the headline unemployment number actually went down to 7.6 percent. The private/public breakdown of the employment numbers followed the same trend as it has for the past few years, with the private sector gaining 95,000 jobs and the public sector losing 7,000 jobs. The size of government continues to decline.

Some of this bad news may have been due to the fiscal cliff deal in January, and the end of the payroll tax holiday, but it's probably too early for any of it to be due to the sequester. However, we can expect that to start biting in April and May. Nice work, Congress.

All in all: yuck.

Obama Proposes Making Food Aid Less Insane

| Fri Apr. 5, 2013 1:34 AM EDT

Jonathan Zasloff writes today about the insane rules governing U.S. food aid overseas. Suppose, says Zasloff, there's a famine in Ethiopia:

The quickest and most effective thing to do would be to find some farmer or group of farmers in other parts of the country, or in neighboring countries, buy their food and get it to the stricken area. After all, one key cause of famine is the lack of money, not lack of crops. But under current law, USAID is basically forbidden from doing that. Instead, it must buy grain in the United States and ship it several thousand miles to the famine area. You can imagine the amount of time that that takes; sometimes, several weeks. it’s a logistic nightmare. In the meantime, thousands die, usually the weakest such as children and the elderly.

But it’s worse than that.

If the food needs to be shipped, then that means that the shipping must be paid for. And it sure is: according to a study done by AJWS and Oxfam, nearly 55% of the cost of American international food aid goes not to food, but to shipping costs. That’s what your tax dollars are going to.

But it’s worse than that.

There are three more repetitions of "it's worse than that" after those two, so read the whole post to see just how bad things are. Needless to say, the reason for this grim state of affairs is that instead of treating food aid as a way to help people who are starving, it's basically treated as a big slush bucket for American farmers. But it would be far more sensible to buy food near the point of famine when possible, so the White House has proposed doing just that. The New York Times reports the unsurprising results:

An Obama administration plan to change the way the United States distributes its international food aid has touched off an intense lobbying campaign by a coalition of shipping companies, agribusiness and charitable groups who say the change will harm the nation’s economy and hamper efforts to fight global hunger.

....Twenty-one senators from farm states also wrote to the Obama administration last month, after being lobbied by the groups, asking that the food aid program be kept in its current form.

As Zasloff points out, even the executive director of the American Maritime Congress, who can probably be trusted to exaggerate the figures as much as possible, claims only that the proposed changes would cost "hundreds" of jobs. Hundreds! As for actual charities, only one is quoted opposing the changes in the Times article, and its opposition is based solely on the fear that Congress would lose interest in overseas charity completely if most of the money were actually used for aid instead of paying off special interests.

In theory, this should be a bipartisan winner. The Bush administration wanted to do it, and now the Obama administration wants to do it. It would be a far more efficient use of taxpayer dollars, and it would allow U.S. aid to help far more people. It's a slam dunk. Call your congress critter today and tell them, for once in their benighted careers, to just suck it up and do the right thing.

Can We Talk About the Global Investment Drought, Please?

| Thu Apr. 4, 2013 9:45 PM EDT

The topic of the day in the econosphere is interest rates. Why are they so low? How long will they stay low? Ryan Avent comments:

The most common explanation for the drop in real interest rates (one advanced by Ben Bernanke) is the global savings glut. In a sense, the explanation is almost tautological; if a price is falling, a glut (or excess of supply relative to demand) is almost by definition the cause. The more interesting issue is the source of the imbalance. Mr Bernanke points, among other things, to reserve accumulation by emerging markets. More recently, he has also noted that a shortage of safe assets could be contributing to the problem.

For these dynamics to work, there should be an insensitivity, somewhere along the line, to interest rates. The glut occurs when there is too much desired saving relative to desired borrowing, and the interest rate falls in order to bring the two into balance.

I wish I understood this better, because that bolded sentence has always seemed like the key insight to me. In theory, as Avent says, if the savings level is high, then interest rates will go down until it's once again attractive to borrow all that money to invest in real-world production of goods and services. But that hasn't happened, which means the real problem we're facing is the mirror image of a global savings glut: namely, a global investment drought. For more than a decade now, no matter how low interest rates have gone, the appetite for real-world investment has remained anemic. During the aughts, this problem was partly masked by the flow of money into property and related derivatives, but after that blew up nothing was left. Capital is still sloshing around the system and is available at ever more attractive rates, but it goes begging nevertheless.

So forget the savings glut. The real question is why, over the past decade, the world has gotten so bearish on real-world investment opportunities. The answer, almost by definition, is that confidence in future economic growth has waned. But why?

Republicans Embrace Listicles as Key to 21st Century Success

| Thu Apr. 4, 2013 5:30 PM EDT

Republican Party chairman Reince Priebus released an "autopsy" a couple of weeks ago that suggested the party's woes were mostly due to poor optics and weak use of technology. Apparently the NRCC, the committee that funds Republican House races, agrees.

Yep: they're doing the thing that every flailing organization does when they can't think of anything actually constructive to do: redesigning their website. In this case, they've decided that cat videos and mindless listicles are the key to political success:

"BuzzFeed's eating everyone's lunch," said NRCC spokesman Gerrit Lansing. "They're making people want to read and be cognizant of politics in a different way."....The NRCC's redesign includes a list of recent and popular posts. Other changes include shorter posts, fewer menu items and a heavy helping of what now passes for social currency on the Web: snark.

The new site comes a few months into the beginning of a broader strategy to capture more of the social Web's attention. To that end, the NRCC has begun dropping blog posts with headlines like "13 Animals That Are Really Bummed on Obamacare's Third Birthday." A recent image macro the NRCC posted on Facebook featured a photo of President Obama laughing below a caption mocking voters for believing his claims about health insurance premiums.

Well, who knows? It might work. They suckered me into writing about it, after all. Still, I have to say that the screenshots of the new site don't really look all that BuzzFeedy to my professionally trained eye. In honor of the new site, then, I think we should come up with a list of listicles for the NRCC to try out. I'll get us started:

  • 12 Ways That A Capital Gains Cut Will Benefit You
  • 10 Best Tea Party Costumes From CPAC
  • VIDEO: Republicans Promote Cat, Dog Adoption as "Antidote to Partisan Bickering"
  • 7 Heartbreaking Letters To Obama From Schoolchildren Asking Him Not To Destroy Their Future
  • GALLERY: Five Gruesome Abortion Photos
  • 17 Ways That Obama Has Made America Less Safe

Your turn. Give the NRCC your best ideas.

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Can Computers Teach Students to Write Better?

| Thu Apr. 4, 2013 2:49 PM EDT

I've been fascinated for a long time by the prospect of grading school essays by computer. Just to put my own beliefs firmly on the table, I think it's surprisingly accurate already; is going to get a lot more accurate very, very soon; and the folks fighting it are basically dinosaurs.

This is not, oddly enough, because I think computer grading is all that great. We're still a long way from true AI. It's because I think that most human grading is far more formulaic and pedestrian than we usually give it credit for. That's why I appreciated this comment from Mark Shermis, a professor at the University of Akron, which came at the end of a New York Times piece about critics of using machine feedback to help students write better essays:

“Often they come from very prestigious institutions where, in fact, they do a much better job of providing feedback than a machine ever could,” Dr. Shermis said. “There seems to be a lack of appreciation of what is actually going on in the real world.”

Roger that. There's no question that a good reader, given sufficient time, will do a far better job of grading and feedback than any machine. That may change someday, but it's certainly true today.

But the vast majority of grading isn't done by top notch readers given plenty of time. It's done by harried, mediocre readers. Can machines do as well or better than they do? Probably.

In any case, I found the article pretty interesting for its focus on feedback, not just grading:

Anant Agarwal, an electrical engineer who is president of EdX, predicted that the instant-grading software would be a useful pedagogical tool, enabling students to take tests and write essays over and over and improve the quality of their answers....There is a huge value in learning with instant feedback,” Mr. Agarwal said. “Students are telling us they learn much better with instant feedback.”

....Two start-ups, Coursera and Udacity, recently founded by Stanford faculty members to create massively open online courses, or MOOCs, are also committed to automated assessment systems because of the value of instant feedback. “It allows students to get immediate feedback on their work, so that learning turns into a game, with students naturally gravitating toward resubmitting the work until they get it right,” said Daphne Koller, a computer scientist and a founder of Coursera.

Anyone who teaches writing will tell you about the value of having students write often and with quick feedback. Every day if possible. The problem is that, practically speaking, it's not usually possible. So if an automated system can handle short student essays and provide decent—not great, but decent—feedback immediately, that has huge potential. This software may not be 100 percent ready for prime time yet, but it's getting there. And it could be a game changer.

Christian Roots of School Voucher Movement Still Pretty Obvious

| Thu Apr. 4, 2013 1:20 PM EDT

The hits just keep coming from the Tennessee legislature. This time it's the sudden realization that if you provide state money to religious schools, you can't just limit it to Christian schools:

In Tennessee, [] a plan to transfer taxpayer money to religious academies is running into trouble as GOP lawmakers slowly realize that all religions will be eligible for public funds.

....For voucher proponents, the first thought tends to be, "Never mind the separation of church and state; let's use taxpayer money to finance religious education." Which is then followed by a second thought: "Wait, you mean religions I don't like might get my money?"

Conservative intellectuals like to make the case that they support school vouchers because the free market will produce better educational outcomes, especially for inner-city kids stuck in terrible schools. And I suppose that maybe conservative intellectuals really do support vouchers for that reason. The problem is that those of us who are over the age of 40 and have three-digit IQs remember where this all started: with segregated Christian schools in the South who were denied tax-exempt status in the 70s. This was one of the formative protest issues for the Christian right, and led directly to their campaigns for state and federally funded vouchers for parents who sent their kids to Christian academies.

Have times changed? Sure. There are now more respectable reasons to support school choice. But as Tennessee and other states have shown, the explicitly Christian roots of this movement are still plainly visible to anyone who doesn't deliberately avert their gaze. Outside of the think tanks, the primary motivation for vouchers isn't to help inner-city kids or improve America's STEM pipeline, it's to funnel money into Christian schools.

Demands to denounce your allies are tiresome. I get that. But if voucher proponents want to be taken seriously on their own terms, they need to be far more active about publicly denouncing the kind of shenanigans that are going on in Tennessee and other states. Intellectuals on the right insist that promoting conservative Christianity isn't the real reason for supporting school vouchers. If that's the case, they need to walk the walk, not just talk the talk.

Needed: Clever Economists to Study Benefits of Marrying Early

| Thu Apr. 4, 2013 12:00 PM EDT

Which is better, getting married early or getting married late? Beats me. My mother got married at 21 and everything turned out pretty well. I got married at 32, and that turned out pretty well too. So I have no nifty anecdotal data to share on this. But how about some nifty statistical data instead? Dylan Matthews throws out a caution:

First, some throat-clearing. None of the data we have on marriage are definitively causal. That's a good thing. To have rock-solid evidence that marriage causes anything, we'd need to randomly require some people to marry at one age and others to marry at another age and then compare the results (and even that study design would have plenty of problems). Human Subjects Committees generally consider such studies unethical and don't let them happen.

This is just begging for one of those clever natural experiments so beloved of economists these days. I'm not clever enough to think of one, but somewhere there has to be something. Like, say, a huge natural disaster somewhere that delayed lots of marriages by a year while everyone was busy rebuilding their towns, while two counties away everyone got married at the usual rate. Or a law that lowered the marriage age in one place but not in a similar state a few hundred miles away. There's gotta be something like that around, doesn't there? Where's freakonomics when you need it?

Women Are Dying at Higher Rates in Nearly Half of All Counties

| Thu Apr. 4, 2013 11:47 AM EDT

I don't have access to the original article, but Bill Gardner, a psychologist who studies the mental health service system for children, links today to a map of female mortality published this month in Health Affairs. It turns out that male mortality mostly improved or stayed the same from the mid-90s to the mid-aughts, but female mortality increased in 43 percent of all counties:

The counties are mapped below: red means that female mortality worsened. You can see a strong regional pattern: just about every county showed had worsened female mortality in several southern states, while no county showed such decline in New England. There are many questions about what explains this pattern. For example, did healthier women migrate out of the south from 1992 to 2006? Nevertheless, the map depicts a shocking pattern of female hardship, primarily in the southeast and midwest.

When I look at the graph, however, I am concerned not just about the women, but also about their children. The mental and physical health of mothers is a key determinant in children’s growth and development. What the map shows is that America has regions of communities with high concentrations of women experiencing substantial hardship. When women are not able to maintain their own health, how well can they nurture their children?

The map is below.