Kevin Drum - 2013

A Conservative Diagnoses the Decay of American Political Institutions

| Wed Dec. 11, 2013 12:15 PM EST

Via Tyler Cowen, Francis Fukuyama diagnoses three things that are driving the decay and sclerosis of the American political system:

The first is that, relative to other liberal democracies, the judiciary and the legislature (including the roles played by the two major political parties) continue to play outsized roles in American government at the expense of Executive Branch bureaucracies....Over time this has become a very expensive and inefficient way to manage administrative requirements.

The second is that the accretion of interest group and lobbying influences has distorted democratic processes and eroded the ability of the government to operate effectively.

....The third is that under conditions of ideological polarization in a federal governance structure, the American system of checks and balances, originally designed to prevent the emergence of too strong an executive authority, has become a vetocracy....We need stronger mechanisms to force collective decisions but, because of the judicialization of government and the outsized role of interest groups, we are unlikely to acquire such mechanisms short of a systemic crisis. In that sense these three structural characteristics have become intertwined.

I'm not entirely persuaded about Fukuyama's second point. There's not much question that lobbying has exploded over the past half century, nor that the rich and powerful have tremendous sway over public policy. But do powerful interest groups really have substantially more influence in the United States than in other countries? Or do they simply wield their power in different ways and through different avenues? I'd guess the latter.

Nonetheless, even if America's powerful are no more powerful than in any other country, the fact that they wield that power increasingly via Congress and, especially, the judiciary might very well make their influence more baleful. I'm reminded of an argument from labor attorney Thomas Geoghegan along similar lines. Obviously he allocates blame a little differently than Fukuyama does, but he still concludes that the explosive growth in litigation to solve problems has had pernicious consequences. In the case of workplace complaints, for example, quick and simple arbitration has been largely replaced by scorched-earth court proceedings:

It is not so much about conduct as state of mind. The issue is no longer whether the employer fired the plaintiff for "just cause," whatever that might now mean in a world of "employment at will." What the plaintiff must do is show that the employer acted to harm him.

....In post-union America, this is the legal system we now have. It forces us to cast legal issues in the most subjectively explosive way, i.e., "racism," "sexism," to get around the fact that we no longer can deal objectively with "just cause." Do I regret I am part of it? Yes. Are my clients often full of hatred? Yes.

In the same way that financialization has a corrosive impact on a country's economy and its ability to produce useful goods and services, you might call this the judicialization of governance, which erodes our country's ability to produce useful, broad-based, widely accepted policy. The best evidence of this is also the most obvious: Over the past few decades, we've gotten to a point where more hostility and bitterness are expended over the appointment of judges than over virtually any other legislative or executive priority.

As for Fukuyama's "vetocracy," that's a sore point of longstanding, and one that's become worse and worse over the past decade. Fukuyama puts it this way:

The United States is trapped in a bad equilibrium. Because Americans historically distrust the government, they aren’t typically willing to delegate authority to it. Instead, as we have seen, Congress mandates complex rules that reduce government autonomy and render decisions slow and expensive. The government then performs poorly, which perversely confirms the original distrust of government. Under these circumstances, most Americans are reluctant to pay higher taxes, which they fear the government will simply waste. But while resources are not the only, or even the main, source of government inefficiency, without them the government cannot hope to function properly. Hence distrust of government becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy.

The whole essay is worth a read. And I congratulate Fukuyama for not even pretending to write a final paragraph with potential solutions. Instead, his final line is, "So we have a problem." Indeed we do.

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Chart of the Day: Obamacare Enrollment Up Sharply on Federal Exchange

| Wed Dec. 11, 2013 11:13 AM EST

The latest HHS report on Obamacare is out, and by interpolating the data on page 3 we can figure out how many people who have successfully selected a health care plan via the federal website since it opened in October. Here are the approximate numbers for signups per week:

Not bad. There was a big jump at the end of November, and continued growth in the Thanksgiving/Black Friday week after that. That said, these numbers still need to grow substantially. At this point in the game, the enrollment rate needs to start pushing 200,000 per week or so on the federal exchange in order to meet the overall enrollment goals set for March of next year. There's still lots of work ahead.

Support for a $10 Minimum Wage Is Surprisingly High

| Wed Dec. 11, 2013 1:18 AM EST

I'm not super interested in the latest poll results about whether Obama's approval is up or down a point or two, or whether Obamacare is up or down a point or two. It'll all shake out soon enough. But the Wall Street Journal's latest poll asked about raising the minimum wage, and the results were pretty interesting:

So 63 percent were in favor of raising the minimum wage to $10.10. That's surprisingly high. Hell, 43 percent even favor raising it to $12.50. I don't imagine that this support is especially deep or passionate, but it's still pretty high. As Damon Silvers of the AFL-CIO says, "If I was a House Republican, I'd be concerned about opposing anything that polled at 63%."

Of course, gun registration polls at better than 63 percent, and so do higher taxes on the rich, just to name a couple of examples. That doesn't seem to have caused very many Republicans to start quaking in their boots. Still, it's encouraging news.

After You Read This Eye-Opening Inside Story, You'll Never Think About Social Media the Same Way Again

| Tue Dec. 10, 2013 11:32 PM EST

In the little corner of the blogosphere that I read regularly, one of the recent hot topics has been viral news sites. I'm not quite sure why Upworthy and its brethren have suddenly become such an object of obsession (and scorn and envy), but they have. So what's their secret?

Well, they've cracked the Facebook code, for one thing, and Facebook is the biggest traffic driver on the web these days. They spend a lot of time scouring the internet for content that people might find intriguing. They keep things simple. They concentrate mostly on videos.

Mostly, though, everyone agrees that they've perfected the science of irresistible headline writing. Upworthy is dedicated to promoting progressive narratives, for example, and one of their typical current offerings is a video that's teased by this headline: "A Surprisingly Simple Way To Know Which Companies Are Cool And Which Are Sorta 'Meh'."

Awesome! But it's also a lie. It's a video about Wagemark, a foundation that wants every company to maintain an 8:1 ratio between its highest- and lowest-paid employees. It's a worthy, progressive topic, I suppose, but certainly not a way to tell if a company is cool or not. Nor is it very interesting. A headline that told the truth about the video probably would have gotten a couple hundred pageviews.

Upworthy's headline-writing black magic has become endlessly talked about as the apotheosis of our modern, millennial, warp-speed, social-media-driven culture. But you know what it reminds me of? Supermarket tabloids.

The supermarket tabs aren't what they used to be, but back in their heyday this was their meat and drink. Every issue featured half a dozen titillating headlines on the cover that sucked you into a story on page 24 that was....usually kind of meh. They did their best to hide this, of course, but most of the time their headlines turned out to be come-ons that ultimately ended in disappointment. Still, you never knew if the next one might be the real deal. Hope springs eternal, so you kept coming back for more.

Other things in the same category: The New York Post. Modern movie trailers. Ron Popeil infomercials. British tabloids. Porn spam. TED talks.

So will it keep working? Or will people eventually catch on to the scam? Both, of course. People will get bored with Upworthy and BuzzFeed one of these days, but a new generation will glom onto whatever the next slick purveyor of teasers turns out to be. This is not something new. In fact, it's the oldest profession in the world. Only the details change from century to century.

Iowa Wants Its Poor to Give Up Smoking and Drinking to Qualify for Medicaid

| Tue Dec. 10, 2013 6:30 PM EST

The Obama administration gave Iowa a waiver today to expand Medicaid along lines similar to what Arkansas did earlier this year, in which Medicaid dollars will be used to buy insurance in the private marketplace. I'm OK with this as an experiment, and curious to see how it turns out. But there was another wrinkle to Iowa's waiver application:

Iowa wanted to do something different. Gov. Terry Branstad (R) wanted to charge a small premium for Medicaid enrollees who earn between 50 percent and 133 percent of the poverty line. In the Arkansas plan, there were no premiums at all.

Health and Human Services essentially split the difference with the state here: They're allowing premiums for those who earn between 100 percent and 133 percent of the federal poverty line, but not for those who earn below that. The premiums are limited at 2 percent of income (for someone at the poverty line, this is about $19 a month), and enrollees have the chance to reduce their payment by participating in a wellness program.

Hmmm. Iowa's waiver application doesn't describe this wellness program (a draft protocol will be submitted next March), but it does provide a hint about its goals:

The state shall submit for approval a draft section of the protocol related to year 1 Healthy Behavior Incentives including, at a minimum....the health risk assessment used to identify unhealthy behaviors such as alcohol abuse, substance use disorders, tobacco use, obesity, and deficiencies in immunization status.

A single person at 50 percent of the poverty line makes less than $500 per month. That's obviously not someone who can afford even a nickel in extra expenses. But that was the income level in Iowa's initial application, which means that for all practical purposes the original goal of this program was to (a) deny government benefits to poor people who are smokers, drinkers, drug users, or overweight, but (b) provide the benefits if these poor people agree to fairly intrusive government monitoring that ensures they improve these behaviors.

So here's a question: what's the liberal party line on this kind of thing? Are we opposed because conservatives are once again trying to deny benefits to the "undeserving" poor? Or are we in favor of this because using incentives to improve destructive lifestyles among the most vulnerable is a worthy effort? Does it matter whether the motivation for these incentives is something we approve of? If a lefty foundation launched a program that helped out poor families via a tough-love style approach that insisted on modifying destructive behavior, would it be OK? How much difference does it make that one is a public program and the other is private?

Comments?

Does the Minimum Wage Look Better if You Account for the EITC?

| Tue Dec. 10, 2013 2:36 PM EST

Over at the Economix blog, minimum wage skeptic David Neumark makes a reasonable point: sure, adjusted for inflation, the minimum wage has declined since the 1960s. But we've created and then expanded the EITC as a wage support tool since then, so you need to look at the two together. If you do that, wage support for low-income families looks a lot better.

Like I said, it's a reasonable point. The problem is that Neumark appears to use the statutory EITC amount in his calculations. In the case of the minimum wage, using statutory amounts is OK since it's a universal policy. But for EITC, you really want to look at actual average benefits and how they've changed over time.

This is very, very difficult. Or, to put it more bluntly, it was too difficult for me, and I couldn't find any authoritative measure of this. However, by cobbling together a few different sources and making some (hopefully reasonable) assumptions about average hours worked and so forth, I took a crack at estimating the value of the EITC converted into hourly wages. The CBPP, for example, says that the average EITC for a family with children was $2,805 in 2010. Nearly all of this goes to families in the bottom quintile with wages under $20,000, which means it goes to workers who are probably making the minimum wage or only slightly more. Some of those families have a single earner working 2,000 hours per year. Some work less. Some families have multiple earners working more than 2,000 hours together. But if you use 2,000 hours as a horseback guess, the average EITC payment comes to about $1.40 per hour worked.

I can't emphasize enough how rough this is. But I doubt it's off by a huge margin. Putting this together with a bit of other data, here's what it produces:

If there's better data bearing on this point, I'm happy to post about it. For now, though, my best guess is that even when you account for the EITC, income support for poor families remains a couple of dollars per hour below its 1960s level.

My personal policy preference is to divide income support between the EITC and the minimum wage. They address different problems and they have different targets (the EITC, for example, is heavily targeted toward families with children, while the minimum wage is universal). Although Neumark is not a fan of increasing the minimum wage, he suggests this is a reasonable policy choice:

There is a more subtle argument — that the combination of an earned-income tax credit with a higher minimum wage can lead to better outcomes than the earned-income tax credit alone....My work with [William] Wascher has explored the interactions of higher minimum wages and a more generous earned-income tax credit. We indeed find that a combination of these two policies leads to higher employment and income among single women with children who are eligible are for the credit. At the same time, the combined policies lead to more adverse employment effects on specific groups — like teenagers and less-skilled minority men — who are not eligible for the earned-income tax credit and have to compete with the new labor market entrants who are eligible for it.

Thus, on distributional grounds there may be an argument for coupling the earned-income tax credit with a higher minimum wage. But to be clear, the higher minimum wage entails some job loss. We may simply be willing to accept this job loss in return for better distributional outcomes.

Although Neumark disagrees, my reading of the literature as a whole suggests that the adverse employment effects are very small, even on the groups most strongly affected by a higher minimum wage. That said, if anyone wants to propose a significant expansion of EITC instead of an increase in the minimum wage, I'm all ears. Generally speaking, though, I'm in favor of guaranteeing a certain minimum compensation to everyone, not just families with children. For that reason, I'd like to see the minimum wage increased.

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Help Me Out On This Whole Cell Phone on Airplanes Thing, OK?

| Tue Dec. 10, 2013 12:36 PM EST

Hereditary Rep. Bill Shuster of Pennsylvania is a pretty conservative guy who believes the government should keep its nose out of private enterprise. Unless, that is, private enterprise happens to annoy him:

Political momentum to keep a ban on cellphone calls during flights gained momentum Monday as lawmakers said it would be crazy to allow them....“Let’s face it, airplane cabins are by nature noisy, crowded, and confined,” said Shuster, the chairman of the House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee. “For those few hours in the air with 150 other people, it’s just common sense that we all keep our personal lives to ourselves and stay off the phone.”

....Lawmakers in favor of keeping the ban say they’re not worried about the safety of passengers. They’re worried about their sanity. “For passengers, being able to use their phones and tablets to get online or send text messages is a useful in-flight option,” Shuster said. “But if passengers are going to be forced to listen to the gossip in the aisle seat, it’s going to make for a very long flight.”

So what's next? A federal ban on cell phones in buses? Restaurants? Movie theaters? Cell phone yakkers are pretty annoying in those places, too.

Don't get me wrong: If I were your benevolent overlord, I'd ban them in all these places. In fact, that would just be the start. And punishment for violating my benevolent statutes would be harsh. Very, very harsh.

But even as a meddling, big-government-loving, knee-jerk liberal, I'm having a hard time coming up with a good reason for this. If Delta Airlines wants to allow cell phone use even though half their customer base rebels, why shouldn't they? The safety arguments are pretty specious, and in any case, Shuster doesn't even try to go there. He just wants to prohibit private companies from allowing behavior that he finds annoying.

I don't know. Maybe this is one of those things like the Do Not Call List, where I should decide that I just don't care about first principles. Cell phones on airplanes are so self-evidently infuriating, and banning them is such a trivial infringement on personal liberty, that we should be in favor of it regardless. But I confess that I'd still like to hear a more coherent argument. Why should the federal government be in charge of telling companies where they can and can't permit their customers to use cell phones?

Obama Shakes Hand With Raul Castro; Right Prepares to Freak Out

| Tue Dec. 10, 2013 11:41 AM EST

At Nelson Mandela's memorial ceremony today, President Obama shook hands with Cuba's Raul Castro. The Guardian reports:

The controversial handshake with Castro is likely to dominate headlines back home in the US, where many conservatives fear the White House is preparing a broader rapprochement with communist leaders in Havana, but Obama's surprisingly political speech also included veiled criticism of dictatorships that neglect human rights and conservatives who ignore inequality.

Will conservatives flip out over this? The quickest way to find out is a trip to The Corner, and Mona Charen comes through:

Alan Gross has been rotting in a Cuban prison for going on five years....That the Obama administration has not seen to his release is outrage enough — but to witness the handshake between Obama and Raul Castro makes the stomach turn. Even without the Gross case, the nature of the Cuban regime should be enough to cause our president to find some way to avoid a handshake. Shameful day to be an American.

OK then. Cue freakout. It's near the top of Drudge too, and if it weren't for Matt Drudge's peculiar preoccupation with weather news, it would probably have a screaming siren there. I guess this is going to be the right's shiny new toy for the week.

New Study Says Poverty Rate Hasn't Budged For 40 Years

| Mon Dec. 9, 2013 11:52 PM EST

The Washington Post reports some good news:

Government programs such as food stamps and unemployment insurance have made significant progress in easing the plight of the poor in the half-century since the launch of the war on poverty, according to a major new study....[The findings] also contradict the official poverty rate, which suggests there has been no decline in the percentage of Americans experiencing poverty since then.

According to the new research, the safety net helped reduce the percentage of Americans in poverty from 26 percent in 1967 to 16 percent in 2012.

There are certain things you always need to be aware of in different fields of study. If it's test scores among school kids, you need to disaggregate by race and ethnic background. If it's life expectancy and Social Security, you need to make sure to use life expectancy at age 65, not life expectancy at birth. And if it's poverty measurements, you need to distinguish between elderly poverty and working-age poverty.

Social Security has dramatically reduced elderly poverty, so if you simply look at overall poverty rates they're always pulled down by the success of Social Security. But what about the working-age poor? How have government programs helped them? This was the first thing I looked for in this new study, and I found it in the red line in Figure 4:

This is a lot less cheery. Poverty has still declined, but not by much, and only between 1967 and 1973. Since 1973, the poverty rate hasn't budged. It was 15 percent forty years ago and it's 15 percent today.

Now, there's still some good news in this study. Using their new measurement, the researchers find that child poverty has dropped from from 31 percent to 18 percent over the past three decades. They also find that safety net programs have reduced poverty rates and dramatically reduced "deep poverty" rates. It's also heartening that poverty rates increased only slightly during the Great Recession. Safety net programs have significantly ameliorated a human catastrophe over the past five years.

But the headline result, I think, is simple: among the working-age poor, poverty has been stuck for the past four decades. We've made virtually no progress at all.

In the End, Switching Congress to Obamacare Will Probably Be Good For All of Us

| Mon Dec. 9, 2013 7:16 PM EST

Back in 2009, Republican members of Congress thought it would be cute to require Congress itself to be covered under Obamacare. They should be willing to eat their own dog food, no? Now they're finding out that private coverage can be pretty expensive, and they're not happy about it. Ryan Cooper approves:

The fact that Members of Congress are now having an unpleasant brush with the American health care system is a good thing. These Members are experiencing the same American health care system that the uninsured and people with preexisting conditions have been experiencing for many years. They are being forced to face the fact that American health care costs a lot, which, of course, is one of the reasons reform is so hard.

....Finally, wealthy members of congress are getting a tiny, tiny taste of how the healthcare sector actually works. Five decades of skyrocketing health price inflation didn’t inspire so much as a peep when Republicans held all three branches of government. But now that Republicans have derped themselves onto the exchanges, they’re shocked, shocked at how expensive things have gotten.

....Now that Members of Congress are having bad health care experiences, D.C. will probably have one of the best exchanges in the entire country. When it comes to health insurance, Congress and regular people will be at least within shouting distance of each other.

So far, the travails of their own employees aren't having much of an effect on congressional Republicans. But I think Cooper is right: eventually, when Obamacare Derangement Syndrome calms down, the fact that Hill staffers are keenly and personally aware of how the law affects them will be good for all of us. Members of Congress will be more willing to fix glitches and more willing to keep coverage generous. Emotions are still running too high for this to affect things right now, but in another year or two that will probably change.