Kevin Drum - November 2013

Regionality is Alive and Well in American Politics, But So Is the Urban-Rural Divide

| Tue Nov. 19, 2013 12:53 PM EST

Ryan Cooper writes this morning that his world has been rocked. Conventional wisdom suggests that American politics is heavily dominated by a rural-urban divide, but is it possible that it's actually dominated primarily by differences between regions, as hypothesized by Colin Woodard? To check this out, Woodard took a look at the urban-rural spectrum in the recent gubernatorial race in Virginia:

In Greater Appalachia, Cuccinelli won every category of county, from the very largest cities in the section (where he won 49.1 to 45.7) to counties without so much as a big town (62.8 to 30.8)....By contrast, in Tidewater, McAuliffe won by large margins in counties large and small, taking five of the six categories. In the biggest cities he won 56.3 to 37.3. In the most rural counties he won by a convincing 51.0 to 41.1.

Hmmm. Obviously the conservative Cuccinelli did better in the western half of Virginia (part of Greater Appalachia) and the liberal McAuliffe did better in the coastal half (Tidewater). At the same time, in Greater Appalachia Cuccinelli won big cities by 3 points and rural counties by 32 points. Conversely, in Tidewater McAuliffe won big cities by 19 points and rural areas by only 10 points. It looks to me like the urban-rural divide is alive and kicking.

Does regionality matter? Of course. Everyone knows the South votes differently from the Northeast, which in turn votes differently than the Mountain West. But within those regions, rural areas trend considerably more conservative than big cities. Both factors are at work. I'm not sure I see what's new here.

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Obamacare Takes a Hit, but Not a Big One

| Tue Nov. 19, 2013 12:19 PM EST

For a long time, the tsunami of bad news surrounding the launch of the Obamacare website didn't seem to take much of a toll on public opinion. But several polls this week suggest that both Obama and Obamacare have finally taken hits. Obama's approval ratings are down, as is support for Obamacare. But not that much. The chart on the right, from today's Washington Post poll, is a little messy looking, but it shows that although support has gone down, there's been only modest movement. It's now about where it was two years ago and two months ago. (And even this tells us little, since, as usual, it fails to distinguish between people who really oppose the law and those who only "oppose" the law because they want it to go further than it does.)

In other poll news, for the fifth year in a row virtually no one thinks President Obama is too conservative. Only 9 percent of the country would prefer a more liberal president. This is up a whopping two points from early 2010, a year after Obama was inaugurated. This is the fundamental problem for American progressives: the country just doesn't support a more robust progressive movement than we have now. Until we change that, fantasies of expanding Social Security and electing Elizabeth Warren are going to remain just that.

In States Where the Website Works, Obamacare Works Too

| Tue Nov. 19, 2013 2:38 AM EST

From the LA Times:

A number of states that use their own systems, including California, are on track to hit enrollment targets for 2014 because of a sharp increase in November, according to state officials.

"What we are seeing is incredible momentum," said Peter Lee, director of Covered California, the nation's largest state insurance marketplace, which accounted for a third of all enrollments nationally in October. California — which enrolled about 31,000 people in health plans last month — nearly doubled that in the first two weeks of this month.

Several other states, including Connecticut and Kentucky, are outpacing their enrollment estimates, even as states that depend on the federal website lag far behind. In Minnesota, enrollment in the second half of October ran at triple the rate of the first half, officials said. Washington state is also on track to easily exceed its October enrollment figure, officials said.

It really is all about the website. In places where it's working, people are signing up and are pretty happy with what they're getting. Rate shock is an issue for a few of them, but not for a lot. The bottom line is the Republican Party's worst nightmare: Once Obamacare has been up and running for a while, it's going to be pretty popular.

Just get the damn website working.

Time For the Nuclear Option on Judges?

| Tue Nov. 19, 2013 2:08 AM EST

For the third time in a month, Senate Republicans have blocked the nomination of a judge to fill an open vacancy on the DC Circuit Court:

By a vote of 53 to 38, the Senate failed to break a filibuster of Robert L. Wilkins, a federal judge who was nominated to fill one of three vacancies on the United States Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit....The impasse over Mr. Wilkins followed Republican blockades of two other candidates for the court since Oct. 31. Unlike previous fights over judicial nominees, the dispute is not as much about the judges’ individual political leanings....Rather, Republicans are seeking to prevent Mr. Obama from filling any of the three existing vacancies on the 11-seat court, fearing that he will alter its conservative tilt.

....Republicans are on the verge of exhausting the last bit of tolerance Democrats have shown for such regular use of the filibuster on nominations. Senator Patrick J. Leahy of Vermont, the Senate’s longest-serving current member, who has fought to safeguard the institution’s traditions, said Monday that momentum was building toward a rules change — a move so controversial that it is referred to as the nuclear option.

“I’ve never seen anything like this,” Mr. Leahy said.

Leahy has been a pretty straight shooter on judicial nominations, honoring Republican holds and defending traditional Senate prerogatives. If he's finally losing patience, it's possible that Democrats are finally ready to eliminate the filibuster on judicial nominees. Here's hoping.

(And while they're at it, how about eliminating the filibuster on executive branch nominees too? That's even less defensible.)

Postal Service Officially Taken Over By America Haters

| Tue Nov. 19, 2013 1:41 AM EST

The Postal Service inflamed the general public earlier this year when it tried to eliminate Saturday delivery, but now it's really playing with fire. Stamp collectors are up in arms over their latest venture, and you do not want to piss off stamp collectors:

On Tuesday, the U.S. Postal Service is scheduled to release 20 postage stamps honoring Harry Potter, and officials at the cash-strapped agency hope the images, drawn straight from the Warner Bros. movies, will be the biggest blockbuster since the Elvis Presley stamp 20 years ago.

But the selection of the British boy wizard is creating a stir in the cloistered world of postage-stamp policy. The Postal Service has bypassed the panel charged with researching and recommending subjects for new stamps, and the members are rankled, not least of all because Potter is a foreigner, several members said.

....“Harry Potter is not American. It’s foreign, and it’s so blatantly commercial it’s off the charts,” said John Hotchner, a stamp collector in Falls Church and former president of the American Philatelic Society, who served on the committee for 12 years until 2010. “The Postal Service knows what will sell, but that’s not what stamps ought to be about. Things that don’t sell so well are part of the American story.”

Meh. I just googled Harry Potter stamps, and it looks to me like half the countries in the world have already issued them. If France and Albania can do it, why can't we? So go ahead. Next up for the America haters: Babar postage stamps. I'd buy some.

The Quality of American Teachers Seems to be Getting Better

| Mon Nov. 18, 2013 9:50 PM EST

In the current issue of Education Next, Dan Goldhaber and Joe Walch report that the quality of new teachers has improved over the past decade:

We find that more academically competent individuals are being drawn into the teaching profession....driven mainly by the proportion of teachers with SAT scores that fall in the top quartile of the distribution. This finding of increasing academic competence for newer entrants to the teacher labor market also shows up when we use undergraduate GPA as our indicator of academic competency, though research by Cory Koedel indicates that inconsistent grading standards across academic majors may render this measure less meaningful.

G&W's research suggests that schools are drawing fewer teachers from the bottom quartile of SAT scores and more teachers from the top quartile. You can see this in the thick red line in the chart on the right (taken from the original paper), which shows the number of teachers from the class of 2008 with different SAT scores: compared to 1993 and 2000, there are fewer from the lower ranks, about the same number from the middle ranks, and more from the higher ranks. Megan McArdle suggests this is mainly due to the Great Recession:

As insecurity in the private-sector labor market increases, the value of public-sector job protections effectively increases, meaning that candidates will be willing to accept lower pay in exchange for the guarantee that it will be nearly impossible to fire them....It’s also possible that a lot of college students suddenly and for no apparent reason decided they wanted to be teachers around the same time that the job market became massively more insecure. But I’m betting it’s no coincidence. Bad news for the graduating seniors, but good news for the nation’s schools.

This is reasonable sounding. However, the most recent data is for teachers hired in 2008, which predates the big spike in unemployment starting in 2009. So I'm not quite convinced. I'd like to see data through 2013 to confirm what's going on. Given the steep rise in private-sector unemployment and the precipitous decline in private-sector job security over the past five years, we should expect to see schools becoming even more selective about who they're willing to hire. If the recession story is true, the data should show at least another 5 percentile point increase in the SAT scores of new teachers.

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It's Time to Think Harder About Income Inequality

| Mon Nov. 18, 2013 6:42 PM EST

Over at the Prospect, David Callahan writes that a new critique of rising income inequality is starting to get some attention. It doesn't rely on arguments about fairness, but on arguments that high income inequality hurts economic growth:

This argument follows a simple causal chain: unequal growth concentrates wealth in the hands of a tiny slice of consumers who can only spend so much money. In turn, the vast majority of earners are left with little extra cash for goods and services. Resulting weak demand undermines growth. Low growth makes everyone poorer than they otherwise might be, including those who own the means of production. Inequality produces other bad economic outcomes, too, such as the underutilization of the nation's human capital, inadequate public investment in both human and physical capital, and social ills that are costly to address, diverting away resources from investment.

The basic idea here is that low and middle-income people spend most of their income, while rich people spend only a fraction of what they earn. So if the rich get a bigger share of total income, then total consumption goes down and the economy flounders. Here's a simple example to give you an idea of how this works. Suppose a country has a total income of $1,000. Furthermore, rich people spend half the money they make while everyone else spends their entire income:

  • Bottom 99 percent receives $900 of income and spends all $900.
  • Top 1 percent receives $100 of income and spends $50.
  • Grand total consumption = $950.

Now suppose that income inequality goes up:

  • Bottom 99 percent receives $800 of income and spends $800.
  • Top 1 percent receives $200 of income and spends $100.
  • Grand total consumption = $900.

This makes a lot of intuitive sense. Unfortunately, the evidence doesn't really seem to support it. "I've been surprised at just how much the rich can spend," said Jared Bernstein, former chief economist to Joe Biden, when I called to ask him about this last year. He's a pretty progressive guy, but he just didn't think there was much convincing research to back this theory.

However, there are some other theories that strike me as better grounded. One theory suggests that as inequality goes up, the rich save more and the middle class borrows more, eventually causing an economic crisis when the debt bubble bursts. There's also an argument that rising inequality leads to the financialization of an economy, which produces economic instability. Or that rising inequality produces political instability as the rich gain more and more influence on the levers of politics. Or that inequality leads to poorer educational opportunities for the middle class, which in turn produces low growth.

Are any of these correct? I happen to particularly believe the first one might be, but the plain truth is that it's still pretty speculative. You can state the thesis in a few paragraphs (simple example here, more scholarly example here), and that's about all there is to say about it. To go further, we need evidence, and this is why all of us on the left should be pleased at the founding of the Washington Center for Equitable Growth, which is dedicated to commissioning serious research on the causes of inequality and how they relate to economic growth.

For myself, I'll happily continue to favor lower levels of inequality purely for reasons of basic fairness and human decency. It's just flatly obscene for the top 10 percent to be hoovering up nearly all the fruits of economic growth while everyone else stagnates. I can't think of any reason why anyone would consider this an acceptable state of affairs. Nonetheless, as Callahan notes, that's not enough for most people. If we want to convince them that this is a problem worth addressing, we need other arguments.

Israel Ups the Anti-Obama Ante

| Mon Nov. 18, 2013 4:43 PM EST

Last week Israel announced it would build 20,000 new settlement homes in the occupied West Bank. It kinda sorta withdrew this plan in the face of international outrage. Then Benjamin Netanyahu went on CNN to blast President Obama's peace overtures to Iran, while a key advisor told the Financial Times that Israel was ready and willing to bomb Iran whether America liked it or not. Dan Drezner says the technical IR term for this behavior is "wigging out":

Israeli jaw-jawing about a military strike puts it into a corner with no good exit option. Netanyahu's definition of a bad nuclear deal seems to include... any nuclear deal. So say that one is negotiated. What can Israel do then? Netanyahu could follow through on his rhetoric and launch a unilateral strike. Maybe that would set Iran back a few years. It would also rupture any deal, accelerate Iran's nuclear ambitions, invite unconventional retaliation from Iran and its proxies, and isolate Israel even further. If Netanyahu doesn't follow through on his rhetoric, then every disparaging Israeli quote about Obama's volte-face on Syria will be thrown back at the Israeli security establishment. Times a hundred.

"Right now," Drezner says, "Israel is pretty much pissing all over the Obama administration." Netanyahu obviously has good reason to think that Republicans will support him in this unreservedly, but he better be careful. Even Obama-hating tea party types can start to get a little antsy when a foreign leader is so obviously contemptuous of American interests and the American president.

The Obamacare Hysteria Bubble Is About to Burst

| Mon Nov. 18, 2013 2:21 PM EST

It's time to take bets. Last week the stars aligned and the media went into an insane feeding frenzy about what Obamacare's rollout problems meant. Democrats in disarray! No, wait. It's worse. Democrats are running for the exits! No, wait. Next year's midterms are set to be a disaster! No, wait. Obamacare is doomed! No, wait. Liberalism is doomed!

So here's the bet. This has pretty obviously become a game of one-upsmanship, and it seems to be continuing this week. For a story to get attention, it has to be even more hysterical than anything that's come before, so that's what we're getting. It's a doom-mongering bubble.

But bubbles always burst eventually. So when will the backlash arrive? What story will, in retrospect, be seen as the pinnacle of panic-stricken hysteria? Who will write it? When will it appear? Make your guess in comments.

Obama's Katrina? How About Obama's Medicare Part D?

| Mon Nov. 18, 2013 1:55 PM EST

Ezra Klein writes today that reporters should stop asking if Obamacare is "Obama's Katrina." After all, Katrina killed 1,833 people. The Obamacare rollout has killed zero people. So knock it off.

Now, I'm on record as not really minding these kinds of comparisons. Usually, when you see a comparison to Hitler or slavery or Katrina or something like that, it's obviously not meant to be taken literally. It's just that these are the historical events big enough that everyone knows about them, and that makes them handy reference points. I'm in a distinct minority on this, but aside from some of the most egregious abuses, I don't really object to this kind of stuff.1

However, Klein raises another point that's interesting for a different reason: nobody really needs to compare Obamacare to Katrina because there's a much more apt comparison at hand: the rollout of Medicare Part D in 2006. It was a disaster! And it was a health care plan! What better comparison do you need?

And yet, no one uses it. No one. Why is that? It's not because it was too long ago. Washington reporters all remember 2006. It's not because it wasn't a fiasco. It was. It's not because it didn't affect lots of people. It did. It's not because seniors didn't complain loudly. They did. And yet, despite all that, no one uses it. Why?

Here's my guess: It's because in 2006 there was no liberal equivalent of Drudge and Limbaugh and Fox News on the left. That's changed a bit since, but MSNBC is still a shadow of the Drudge/Fox/Limbaugh axis. These guys are simply way better at milking a narrative and getting the traditional media to play along. And the Obamacare narrative is tailor-made for them. Bureaucratic failure. Broken promises. Rising costs. Their outrage is taken as entirely sincere, and for that reason it gets amplified into a feeding frenzy in the media that makes the Obamacare rollout seem not just modestly worse than the Medicare Part D rollout, but an epic disaster unparalleled in the history of social welfare.

In fairness, there's a second reason: The Medicare Part D rollout might have been a debacle, but it didn't cost anyone anything. It was literally something for nothing, so nobody ended up with higher monthly bills to complain about. That's the miracle of being a fiscally irresponsible party that funds new programs without bothering to pay for them. Democrats could have done the same thing with Obamacare and avoided a lot of its rollout problems, but they mostly decided to be responsible and pay for things honestly. As usual, it turns out that Americans don't appreciate that much.

1This is not a license to be an idiot. If you start calling Obamacare "Obama's Holocaust," then you're an idiot.