Kevin Drum - October 2013

BREAKING: China Still Not Collapsing

| Fri Oct. 18, 2013 7:53 AM PDT

Matt Yglesias thinks it's time to give China a break:

I've lost track of how many years we're into the story of "debt-burdened China and its unsustainable investment-fueled growth are about to crash and burn" but this morning came the news of a rebound in economic growth despite a fall in exports after a couple of down quarters. Naturally the news article is nonetheless filled with gloom and doom about bad debts and overinvestment and blah blah blah.

And to be clear, I think that two things are true. One is that as China gets richer and richer its growth rate is going to be on a downward trajectory. The other is that if you predict a Chinese financial crisis every month for enough straight months, eventually the Chinese financial crisis will occur.

True dat. Unfortunately, this is probably evidence not that China won't crash, but that bubbles can almost always be sustained longer than people think. In the U.S. serious people started to bang the drum about the housing bubble as early as 2002, and by 2005 everyone was tired of it. But the very next year, the market peaked and started its epic collapse.

Nonetheless, I agree with Yglesias. That's not to say China will never suffer from a recession. It will, just like every other country. But its real problems are less bubblific in nature than they are structural and long-term: aging demographics, rising wages, global competition, and the automation of the workplace. Getting to a per capita GDP of $10,000 has been an amazing achievement, but getting to $20,000 is going to be a lot harder.

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Charles Krauthammer Wants Redskins to Change Name, But Doesn't Want Anyone Else Saying So

| Thu Oct. 17, 2013 8:48 PM PDT

Charles Krauthammer explains today that because words evolve over time, he thinks it's time for Washington DC's football team to change its name:

If you were detailing the racial composition of Congress, you wouldn’t say: “Well, to start with, there are 44 Negroes.” If you’d been asleep for 50 years, you might. But upon being informed how the word had changed in nuance, you would stop using it and choose another.

And here’s the key point: You would stop not because of the language police. Not because you might incur a Bob Costas harangue. Not because the president would wag a finger. But simply because the word was tainted, freighted with negative connotations with which you would not want to be associated.

....Similarly, regarding the further racial breakdown of Congress, you wouldn’t say: “And by my count, there are two redskins.” It’s inconceivable, because no matter how the word was used 80 years ago, it carries invidious connotations today.

This is perfectly sensible, as is the rest of what he says. So here's my question: why does he feel the need to start the column with this little swipe?

I don’t like being lectured by sportscasters about ethnic sensitivity. Or advised by the president of the United States about changing team names. Or blackmailed by tribal leaders playing the race card.

Is he just establishing his conservative cred? Because as near as I can tell, he's saying pretty much the same thing as Costas and Obama. So why is he annoyed when they say it, but thinks it's OK when he says it? If Costas and Obama are right—and he seems to think they are—why is there anything wrong with what they said?

POSTSCRIPT: If you're interested in seeing exactly how the usage of "redskin" has evolved over time, Ian Gordon has you covered here.

January Is Perilously Close to Primary Season

| Thu Oct. 17, 2013 2:01 PM PDT

Right now, there's a common assumption in DC circles that Republicans won't repeat the mistakes they made this month when the next budget deadline hits in January. Sure, there'll be a fight over levels of spending and who gets what, but it will be a fairly ordinary fight. The government will stay open, the debt ceiling will get raised, and Obamacare will remain safe.

Thoreau isn't quite so sure. After all, January is perilously close to primary season:

The best way to win a GOP primary is to say that you refused to compromise with the Democrats. If I were a Democratic elected official, I’d much rather try to negotiate something with Republicans now than in primary season.

If the budget and debt ceiling negotiations were a bit later, that would work to the Democrats’ advantage, because shutdowns will not be popular with the general election audience. However, January is close enough to primary season that it stiffens Republican spines, and just far enough from November that a lot can happen in the interim.

My other prediction is that next August will be one hell of a news cycle. There’s a lot that both sides will want voters to forget before November, especially Team Red, so I predict Peak Stupidity in August of 2014. The crazier it is, the cleaner the slate is wiped in September.

I'm not sure I actually believe this, since I suspect that all the big talk about primarying each and every Republican who voted for yesterday's deal is mostly going to turn out to be smoke. And if you don't have a credible challenger by January, you don't have a lot to worry about. But it's still an interesting hypothesis that's worth keeping an eye on.

Sorry, Democrats, the Sequester Is Here to Stay

| Thu Oct. 17, 2013 10:52 AM PDT

As several people have pointed out to me, my headline this morning ("The Republican Defeat in the Budget Deal Was Complete and Total") is satisfying but not entirely true. After all, Republicans did get a continuing resolution that funds the government at sequester levels. Democrats agreed to that long ago.

But I've never really thought of that as a Republican victory, because I never really thought there was any chance at all of rolling back the sequester. Here's why:

  • Everyone agreed to it in 2011. Everyone wanted lower spending. Remember, the sequester was a temporary substitute for a Grand Bargain that would have cut spending even more, and it became permanent only when the infamous supercommittee failed. But the supercommittee also would have cut spending even more. The sequester wasn't a compromise, it was the smallest, most Democrat-friendly level of spending reduction that was on the table in 2011.
  • Status quo bias is important. In this case, it works in favor of keeping the sequester in place.
  • Upcoming negotiations over the sequester aren't an example of hostage taking. They're just ordinary budget negotiations. If, in the end, it turns out there's nothing that conservatives want badly enough, then Democrats simply don't have the leverage to get higher spending levels. And it looks very much as if that's the case.
  • The original sequester cuts were dumb, across-the-board reductions. But that was only for last year. Appropriations can all be freshly negotiated this year, which makes the pain of the sequester smaller.
  • I'm not at all convinced that President Obama even wants to do away with the sequester. He says he does, of course, and his budget proposal includes higher levels of spending. But his actions over the past three years speak louder than words. His pivot to the deficit in 2010 seemed quite genuine, and his active push for a grand bargain in 2011 confirmed that he takes the deficit fairly seriously. It's true that the sequester is a lousy way of addressing the deficit, but I suspect that Obama thinks it's better than nothing. If he could negotiate some kind of swap between short-term discretionary cuts and long-term entitlement cuts, he'd do it, but if he can't he's not going to invest a lot of energy in fighting the weather.

It's possible that there's some kind of minor deal to be made before the CR extension runs out in January. But for the moment, I think the sequester is locked into place. Republicans have never been serious about "entitlement reform," and even if they were, there's no way that anything significant could be negotiated within a few weeks. Without that, there's just no bargain to be had except, possibly, at the margins. Unfortunately for Democrats, the sequester is settled law just as much as Obamacare is. And we all know the lesson Republicans learned from fighting Obamacare, don't we?

UPDATE: I'm getting some feedback that suggests the Obama White House, in fact, really, really hates the sequester because it hammers discretionary spending so badly. So I might have gone too far in my fifth bullet above. However, I still think the sequester is here to stay, and I doubt that Obama is going to try to fight too hard against it.

How Likely Is a Budget Deal Later This Year?

| Thu Oct. 17, 2013 9:39 AM PDT

My congressman, John Campbell, has been sending out daily emails during the budget showdown, and today's wrap-up shows an admirable grip on reality:

The mainstream media (MSM) would have you believe that this was a "bipartisan agreement". It was.....in the same way that Lee and Grant reached an agreement at the Appomattox Courthouse in 1865. It was a complete surrender on the part of Republicans. All that was "negotiated" were the terms of that surrender.

Yeah, pretty much. Except that, as I recall, Grant allowed Lee's men to keep their swords and horses, didn't he? I'm not sure the 2013 GOP even managed to get that much out of the deal.

In any case, Campbell's email is basically an effort to buck up the spirits of his fellow conservatives by taking shots at the media, Janet Yellen, Obamacare, and scurrilous Democrats. (No, I'm not sure what Yellen did to deserve being put into this company.) That's all fine. But I thought this was the interesting part:

The next "cliff" comes on January 15, 2014 when the government could potentially shut down again. That date was intentionally chosen because that is when the next round of Sequester cuts, that further reduce government spending, take effect. This round of cuts will disproportionately hit defense spending. Democrats are hoping that they can leverage increased funding for defense for all the IRS, EPA, ObamaCare and welfare spending that they want. I think that effort will fail. The greatest threats to America today are from within, not without. In my opinion, we must preserve the Sequester as the only force we currently have that is limiting the cost and scope of government to some degree. Between now and then, watch the White House spin machine spool up on how "devastating" these cuts are in order to soften the ground for this push. But, if they want to shut the government down again in order to increase spending, let them do it.

How should this be taken? In its most obvious sense, it's an assertion that Republicans won't budge on sequester levels of spending. If the greatest threats to America are "from within, not without," this means they're willing to sacrifice the Pentagon in order to keep domestic spending low.

On the other hand—and I freely admit that I'm just reading tea leaves here—when Campbell says only that "I think" increased funding will fail, that sure doesn't sound very adamant, does it? Even granted that Campbell isn't a table-pounding type of tea partier, that seems pretty lukewarm. Maybe there really is a minor deal to be made on the budget later this year.

The Republican Defeat in the Budget Deal Was Complete and Total

| Thu Oct. 17, 2013 9:05 AM PDT

The budget deal passed by Congress yesterday did, in the end, include one concession to Republicans: a provision that tightens up income verification for Obamacare recipients. Since Democrats were insisting on principle that they wouldn't provide Republicans with any ransom in return for keeping the government open, this seems a little worrying at first. It may not be a big ransom, but it's not zero, either.

Today, though, Sarah Kliff reassures me. In fact, it really is zero:

The deal basically requires two submitted reports in the course of the next year. Health and Human Services Secretary Kathleen Sebelius is due to submit the first report by Jan. 1, which must detail "the procedures employed by American Health Benefit Exchanges to verify eligibility for credits and cost-sharing reductions described in subsection." Six months later, the HHS inspector general is required to submit a report "regarding the effectiveness of the procedures and safeguards provided under the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act for preventing the submission of inaccurate or fraudulent information by applicants."

....There's nothing about the income verification measures that passed Wednesday night that will change Obamacare, aside from a few staff members at Health and Human Services devoting some hours to gathering the data and writing up these reports. And that probably explains why Democrats were okay with passing this language in the first place.

That's it? A couple of routine reports? I take it back: The Republican defeat in this debacle really was complete and total.

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The Conservative Fundraising Racket, Part 674

| Thu Oct. 17, 2013 8:09 AM PDT

This morning in my inbox I have a "personal appeal from Rand Paul." Nothing unusual about that, but check out the subject:

Dear Concerned American:

"I owe these unions."

President Barack Obama couldn't have stated it any more clearly.

And after spending an estimated BILLION dollars to re-elect Barack Obama and maintain control of the U.S. Senate, the union bosses couldn't agree more.

They're wasting no time demanding PAYBACK.

Top AFL-CIO union boss Richard Trumka has already made clear that he expects Big Labor's Card Check Forced Unionism Bill to be a top priority in Obama's second term.

....Since Barack Obama doesn't have to face the voters again for re-election, the union bosses understand this may be their last -- and best -- opportunity to make Card Check Forced Unionism the law of the land.

That's why it's vital you act today!

Vital indeed. And "VERY expensive," of course. So please make a generous contribution to the National Right to Work Committee.

The fact that Rand Paul opposes unions—and supports the NRWC—is no surprise, but this pitch is a sign of just how much of a racket conservative fundraising has become. There's no question that card check is something that both unions and Democrats support, but it couldn't even pass in 2009, when Democrats controlled the House and had a supermajority in the Senate. It has zero chance of passing now, and everyone knows it. Rand Paul certainly knows it, and the National Right to Work Committee knows it.

But there are frightened legions of Fox News viewers out there who don't know it, and Rand Paul wants a chunk of their Social Security checks. Right now. For a campaign against a nonexistent bill that he knows perfectly well isn't going to take place. Nice work.

Top Ten Winners of the Budget Showdown Debacle

| Wed Oct. 16, 2013 9:50 PM PDT

Conventional wisdom has it that President Obama was a winner in the budget showdown, John Boehner was a loser, everyone hates Ted Cruz, blah blah blah. But that stuff will all blow over within days. Here's a top ten list of the real winners:

Wall Street: They didn't panic because they figured Congress would do the right thing at the last second, just like always. They were right.

Kathleen Sebelius: If not for the shutdown, the media would have focused its attention 24/7 on the disastrous rollout of Obamacare. By now, Sebelius would be in about the same mental shape as the House stenographer if Republicans hadn't helpfully covered for her.

Pandas: For two weeks, anyway, they got to grow up without millions of prying eyes following their every move and cooing about how cute they are.

Netflix: Furloughed federal workers had plenty of free time on their hands, and a lot of them turned to Netflix to fill all those empty hours.

Robert Costa: He was everyone's go-to reporter for the inside scoop on what Republicans were thinking at each step along the way. A new job and a big raise can't be too far off.

Iran: Benjamin Netanyahu wants everyone to be outraged over Iran's peace overtures, but no one is listening. For the moment, anyway, Obamacare is the only existential threat that American conservatives have time for.

China: They want to see a "de-Americanized world." After watching the know-nothing takeover of the American government by the tea party, horrified leaders across the globe are inclined to think that's not such a bad idea.

Random House: Following Ted Cruz's epic filibuster, Green Eggs and Ham is all set to become the Christmas present of choice for millions of devoted tea partiers this holiday season.

The World War II Memorial: I've been there, and it's really not a very good memorial. But now it's the infamous site of the Barrycade! Attendance should skyrocket.

Democrats: They actually stuck together! Can you believe it? Republican overreach was so egregious that it accomplished in two weeks what no one in history had managed to accomplish in over two centuries. Will Rogers is spinning in his grave.

Today I Fired a Gun For the First Time in my Life

| Wed Oct. 16, 2013 6:27 PM PDT

Since I write periodically about gun issues, I've long had a vague feeling that I should learn how to shoot a gun someday. Not to become an expert or anything, but just so I have some idea of what's involved in a tactile, rather than an academic, sense.

So today I did. A friend of mine hauled out his gun collection and showed it to me, and then we headed out to a small indoor range and shot a few rounds each. So how did I do? The first gun on our list was a .40 caliber Beretta semiautomatic. On my first try loading the clip, I put the rounds in backward, which didn't work so well. So I reloaded, popped the clip in, flipped off the safety, and did my best to hold the gun the way I had been told to. As you can see below, none of my seven rounds managed to hit inside the target area, but five of them did hit the paper. Not bad for a city boy!

So that's that: my first time ever firing a gun. I loaded another clip, and on my second try I started to get the hang of lining up the sight and adjusting for the recoil, and did a little better. One round even went into the black. Next, my friend got out a .22 caliber rifle, and we plinked away with that for a while. Those .22 clips are cute little things, aren't they? Here's a couple of clips worth in my next target:

The first set all landed to the left. Then I overcompensated and got the cluster on the right. Then I apparently got it about right, and the next five rounds all went into the black.

Finally, we fired a 1 ounce slug from a shotgun. That puppy has a bit of a kick, doesn't it? Oddly enough, though, I managed to fire it fairly straight anyway. We were using a silhouette target at that point, and my single round hit it in the shoulder.

So now I know what a gun feels like and how to handle one. That's about all I know, but I figure any day in which I learn something new is a pretty good day.

The Obamacare Website Might Finally Be Getting Better

| Wed Oct. 16, 2013 11:38 AM PDT

My timing, as always, is perfect. Last night I wrote a post wondering just how bad the problems with the Obamacare website really are. Today, Sarah Kliff reports that things are finally getting better. The site remains slow, but she was able to complete an application that included financial assistance in about 30 minutes. Her application is now "in progress," so she hasn't begun the actual process of choosing a plan, but this is still better than it was before. Kliff also reports that shopping for plans is fairly smooth and easy.

So....maybe the problems are more resolvable than we thought, and are in fact finally getting resolved. Stay tuned.