Kevin Drum - January 2014

If Obama's For It, It Must Be Bad, Part 3,476

| Tue Jan. 28, 2014 1:22 PM PST

Dave Weigel points today to a perfect distillation of one of the most important political dynamics in Washington DC right now:

Not everybody wants Obama to notice them. Advocates for Common Core standards — which guide guide math and language arts instruction from kindergarten through high school — would rather the president take a pass.

Common Core was developed by associations of state officials and nonprofit groups. But once Obama embraced it and had given states financial and policy incentives to adopt it, it immediately sparked a backlash....“It’s imperative that the president not say anything about the Common Core State Standards,” said Michael Petrilli, executive vice president of the Thomas B. Fordham Institute. “For two years running, he’s taken credit for the adoption of these standards, which has only fueled critics on the right who see this effort as a way for the federal government to take over control of the schools.

“If he cares more about the success of this initiative than credit-taking, he will skip over it.”

There you have it. If Obama's for it, tea partiers are against it. It doesn't really matter whose idea it was in the first place.

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Net Neutrality Drifts Ever Closer to Oblivion

| Tue Jan. 28, 2014 12:29 PM PST

In the wake of a circuit court ruling that the FCC doesn't have the authority to mandate net neutrality, Brian Fung reports on the likely next step from federal regulators:

[FCC chairman Tom Wheeler] appears to be leaning increasingly toward using the FCC's existing legal authority to regulate broadband providers. Industry watchers say this approach would likely turn on a part of the Communications Act known as Section 706, which gives the FCC authority to promote broadband deployment.

....Over the past week, some insiders, including industry representatives and public advocates, have said that Section 706 actually gives the FCC much more power than we thought....While the agency can't lay down a blanket rule prohibiting ISPs from abusing their power, it could go after offending companies on a case-by-case basis. This is exactly what Wheeler has in mind.

"We are not reticent to say, 'Excuse me, that's anti-competitive. Excuse me, that's self dealing. Excuse me, this is consumer abuse,'" said Wheeler on Tuesday. "I'm not smart enough to know what comes next [in innovation]. But I do think we are capable of saying, 'That's not right.' And there's no hesitation to do that."

So long as the FCC can argue that a company is hindering the rollout of broadband or broadband competition (a pretty vague definition), the agency may be able to regulate ISPs, content intermediaries, and possibly Web services like Google and Netflix themselves.

Hmmm. Maybe Wheeler has no hesitation to do that, but this basically puts net neutrality at the whim of the president. All it takes is a few FCC members who think net neutrality is a crock, and enforcement would end instantly. This is a pretty thin reed for supporters of net neutrality.

Apparently the Denver Broncos Have Lots of Dumb Fans

| Tue Jan. 28, 2014 11:18 AM PST

The other day I noticed that the Broncos were favored to win the Super Bowl, and I was puzzled. I thought the Seahawks were favored. But I don't pay a lot of attention to this stuff, so I figured I just misread something somewhere.

But no! Apparently the betting line has changed substantially over the past week or so. The New York Times explains why:

The [oddsmakers] know things. They know there are two kinds of money: the sharp dough of professional gamblers and the square dollars of the public. They know that betting lines are meant to be moved....They know that square money is enthralled by favorites and falls hard for teams that have done a lot for them lately. The Broncos, for instance, not only covered against New England, but looked good doing it. It’s part of the reason Denver is currently the 2 ½-point favorite even though oddsmakers opened with the Seahawks — a team they believe is better — as a 2- to 2 ½-point favorite.

That's a big swing. Apparently the dumb money is falling hard for the Broncos. If that's the case, the smart guys ought to make a killing. We'll see about that.

If You Don't Like This Movie, You Hate America

| Tue Jan. 28, 2014 10:08 AM PST

Perhaps you don't know this, what with having a life and all, but the right has been throwing mini-conniptions for the past week or two over the liberal media's response to the movie Lone Survivor. This example is typical. Jonah Goldberg has a suitably toned down version for a mainstream op-ed page here:

Hollywood has never been opposed to propaganda. When Hollywood's self-declared auteurs and artistes denounce propaganda as the enemy of art, almost invariably what they really mean is "propaganda we don't like."

Consider the film "Lone Survivor," which tells the true story of heroic Navy SEALs in Afghanistan. The film has been denounced by some critics; a "jingoistic, pornographic work of war propaganda," in the words of one reviewer. Richard Corliss of Time chimed in: "That these events actually happened doesn't necessarily make it plausible or powerful in a movie, or keep it from seeming like convenient propaganda." Similar complaints (from non-conservatives, at least) about antiwar films made during the George W. Bush years are much harder to find.

This got me curious. I haven't seen the movie myself, so I hopped over to Wikipedia to see what it had to say:

Lone Survivor opened in limited release in the United States on December 25, 2013, before opening across North America on January 10, 2014, to critical acclaim and strong financial success. Critical reaction to the film was mostly positive, with commentators praising Berg's direction, as well as the acting, story, visuals, and battle sequences.

....Lone Survivor has received "largely positive reviews" from film critics, according to The Hollywood Reporter. The Los Angeles Times reported the critics' consensus was that "the film succeeds in bringing the mission to life, although it avoids probing the deeper issues at hand." Review aggregator Rotten Tomatoes sampled 154 reviews, and as of January 2014, the film holds a 73% rating, with an average score of 6.6/10....Another review aggregator, Metacritic, assigned the film a weighted average score of 60 (out of 100), based on 41 reviews from mainstream critics, considered to be "mixed or average reviews".

How about that? Wikipedia also informs me that five studios originally put in bids for the film rights. What's more, Lone Survivor has been nominated for two Academy Awards and has already won several other awards.

Nonetheless, it was reviewed negatively by some critics, including a couple of lefties who don't care much for war films. And that's all it takes these days to get the grievance machine rolling. It's yet more proof that liberals hate America.

UPDATE: Apparently this all dates back to a Jake Tapper interview with the real-life SEAL the movie is based on, which got twisted into a belief that Tapper said the other members of the SEAL team "died for nothing." Asawin Suebsaeng has the deets here.

The Gap Between Private and Public Sector Workers Can't Keep Growing Forever

| Tue Jan. 28, 2014 9:30 AM PST

From the New York Times:

President Obama plans to sign an executive order requiring that janitors, construction workers and others working for federal contractors be paid at least $10.10 an hour, using his own power to enact a more limited version of a policy that he has yet to push through Congress.

I wonder how this plays out politically? On the one hand, public support for a higher minimum wage is very broad. On the other hand, this reinforces the widening gap between private sector workers and those who are paid (directly or indirectly) by taxpayer dollars. One side watches its wages stagnate and its standard of living drop, while its taxes are used to fund ever higher wages for the lucky few working for the government.

It's not clear how this is going to play out on the broader political stage. There's already been a backlash against unionized state and local workers, who have seen their wages and pensions increase during the recession, while the taxpayers who fund them have seen their wages drop significantly during the same period. But how does this story end? With voters rebelling against higher wages for government workers? Or with voters rebelling against the miserly wages of the private sector? I don't know. But at some point, something's got to give.

UPDATE: I didn't get into the comp details in this post, so let me just add a little bit here. My read of the evidence is that, as of a few years ago, government workers at low and mid-range pay levels were generally (but not universally) better compensated than similar private sector workers. The gap was small, but real, and over the past several years it's almost certainly increased.

The story is different at higher wage levels. Executives, doctors, lawyers, scientists, and so forth are paid quite a bit better in the private sector than they are in government jobs.

How to Improve the SOTU Response. Seriously.

| Tue Jan. 28, 2014 8:56 AM PST

Over at the Monkey Cage, Arthur Lupia has a post titled "Three ways to improve the response to the State of the Union address." My first response was, "Please continue. I promise not to laugh." But it turns out he really does have some good advice:

Today’s SOTU responses have the production qualities of a 1980s cable-access program....Contrast this with the crowds that greet the president when he enters and the frequent applause he receives (even if offered by only half of the attendees). Viewers notice these differences, which can provide visual and aural reinforcement to the notion that the responding party is second-best.

.....Add an audience. Ample research shows that people’s acceptance of new information often depends on how they see others responding to it. If the response can be delivered in front of citizens whose enthusiasm for the message is energetic and genuine, viewers will sense that.

....Include lots of energetic young adults....Because there will always be plenty of young voters who want to play a bigger role in the responding party’s future, why not invite them to be part of the audience? Viewers would see, hear and feel the energy that such can audience can create.

There has to be some reason that opposing parties don't do this already. It's all pretty obvious advice, especially the second point about doing the speech in front of an audience. But what's the reason? Do the old fogies think the SOTU is a sacred event that shouldn't be diminished by stagecraft and a cheering audience? That seems unlikely. Are the cable nets unwilling to broadcast an obvious campaign speech? Give me a break. Everyone knows what these things are. Do the party wheelhorses not care because they figure no one watches it anyway? That's possible—just barely—but it's hard to believe that no one sees the possibilities. And it's not like a more vibrant response would cost a ton of money to put on. A few hundred cheering kids would be plenty. You don't need to do it in the Astrodome.

Anyway, weird stuff. It seems like such an obvious missed opportunity. What explains it?

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One-Third of Americans Who Were Middle Class in 2008 Now Consider Themselves Lower or Lower Middle Class

| Mon Jan. 27, 2014 5:25 PM PST

Pew Research has a new poll out tracking how many people call themselves middle class vs. some other class. The chart on the right shows the basic results over the past few years.

I'm trying to figure out what to think of this. If you actually take a close look at the numbers, it turns out that of the people who identified as middle class in 2008, nearly a third of them now identify as lower middle or lower class.1 And as dramatic as that sounds, it's actually even more dramatic than those bare words suggest. Class self-identification is deeply tied up with culture, not just income, and this decline means that a lot of people—about one in six Americans—now think of themselves as not just suffering an income drop, but suffering an income drop they consider permanent. Permanent enough that they now live in a different neighborhood, associate with different friends, and apparently consider themselves part of a different culture than they did just six years ago.

I'm going to repeat that: A third of the people who identified as middle class in 2008 now identify as lower middle or lower class. And that happened in a mere six years. Paul Krugman suggests that there's a silver lining here: "Conservatives claiming that character defects are the source of poverty, and that poverty programs are bad because they make life too easy, are now talking to an audience with large numbers of Not Those People who realize that they are among those who sometimes need help from the safety net." This in turn means that these people, even in red states and counties, will start supporting safety net programs in large numbers. Maybe. But here's a friend arguing that in a lot of places, there's just a lot more going on:

West Virginia is a great example. That state is mostly blue collar to dirt poor. But politics is an amazing thing. I have old childhood friends who are out of work or between jobs, or have kids with special needs who are going up on Facebook every day with brutal takedowns of Obamacare. And they're preaching to a choir there. Every day. I have no doubt that some of them have taken advantage of the law. They're not stupid. But they are rabidly partisan and they have no scruples about savaging anything with a D next to it.

In other words, more people might be using the safety net, but that doesn't always mean more people support the safety net. I suspect that's right—for now, anyway. A change in class self-identification is only the first step toward a deeper change in cultural and tribal ties. But if the economy turns south again sometime in the next couple years, those deeper ties might fray as well.

1Wondering where I came up with this? Here's how, based on data from Question 52 in the survey:

  • The ranks of the upper and upper middle classes dropped by 7 percentage points.
  • Those people presumably dropped mostly into the middle class.
  • In 2008, 53 percent of Americans identified as middle class. By 2014, the newcomers dropping in from above should have swelled that to 60 percent. But the actual number is 44 percent. That's a drop of 16 percentage points.
  • So of the 53 percent who initially identified as middle class in 2008, 16 percentage points have moved downward. That's nearly a third.

No, the Decline of Cinderella Marriages Probably Hasn't Played a Big Role in Rising Income Inequality

| Mon Jan. 27, 2014 11:38 AM PST

Tyler Cowen points me to a paper today about the rise in assortative mating. Basically, this means that we increasingly marry people who are similar to ourselves. High school grads tend to marry other high school grads, and college grads tend to marry other college grads. The authors of the paper conclude that this has implications for rising income inequality:

If matching in 2005 between husbands and wives had been random, instead of the pattern observed in the data, then the Gini coefficient would have fallen from the observed 0.43 to 0.34, so that income inequality would be smaller. Thus, assortative mating is important for income inequality. The high level of married female labor-force participation in 2005 is important for this result.

The table on the right is a standardized contingency table that compares 1960 to 2005. The diagonal numbers show the percentage of each educational class who are married to others of the same educational class, and in every case the numbers are higher in 2005. This does indeed suggest that assortative mating has contributed to increasing income inequality. However, I'd offer a few caveats:

  • Comparing observed GINI with a hypothetical world in which marriage patterns are completely random is a bit misleading. Marriage patterns weren't random in 1960 either, and the past popularity of "Cinderella marriages" is more myth than reality. In fact, if you look at the red diagonals, you'll notice that assortative mating has actually increased only modestly since 1960.
  • So why bother with a comparison to a random counterfactual? That's a little complicated, but the authors mainly use it to figure out why 1960 is so different from 2005. As it turns out, they conclude that rising income inequality isn't really due to a rise in assortative mating per se. It's mostly due to the simple fact that more women work outside the home these days. After all, who a man marries doesn't affect his household income much if his wife doesn't have an outside job. But when women with college degrees all started working, it caused a big increase in upper class household incomes regardless of whether assortative mating had increased.
  • This can get to sound like a broken record, but whenever you think about rising income inequality, you always need to keep in mind that over the past three decades it's mostly been a phenomenon of the top one percent. It's unlikely that either assortative mating or the rise of working women has had a huge impact at those income levels, and therefore it probably hasn't had a huge impact on increasing income inequality either. (However, that's an empirical question. I might be wrong about it.)

This is interesting data, which is why I'm presenting it here. And it almost certainly has an impact on changes of income distribution between, say, the top fifth and the middle fifth. But the real drivers of rising income inequality, which have driven up the incomes of the top one percent so stratospherically, almost certainly lie elsewhere.

The No-Fly List Takes Another Hit

| Mon Jan. 27, 2014 9:30 AM PST

Two federal judges have recently ruled that the government's no-fly list has some serious constitutional problems:

This follows on a federal court decision in August that travelling internationally by air involves "a constitutionally protected liberty interest." While that case still has a way to go before it reaches a conclusion, the implications of a constitutionally protected right are that any limits on it must involve due process. Simply slapping names on a list because they're allegedly suspected of the definition-of-terrorism-of-the-week and leaving people stranded won't cut it.

The more recent decisions would seem to follow on that logic, recognizing that arbitrary limits on travel really do impair people's ability to exercise their rights and such limits—especially when they involve official screw-ups—have to be fixable through some formal process.

It's taken more than a dozen years to get to this point, and that's a disgrace. The federal government certainly has the right to prevent foreigners from entering the country, and it doesn't owe them due process when it makes those decisions. But preventing citizens and legal residents from flying overseas—or, even worse, allowing them to fly but not allowing them to return home—is police state territory. Ditto for the steady conversion of the Immigration Service into an extraconstitutional agency to harass and search citizens who can't be legally harassed or searched by ordinary law enforcement.

The federal government simply doesn't—or shouldn't—have the right to unilaterally hound and persecute people based on the mere suspicion of a bureaucrat. Arbitrarily constraining travel is a favorite tactic of oppressive regimes, and it has no place in the United States. The faster this stuff is ended, and the faster that due process once again becomes more than just a nice idea, the better.

America on the Edge of Its Seat Waiting for State of the Union Address

| Mon Jan. 27, 2014 8:35 AM PST

Ed Kilgore previews tomorrow's State of the Union address:

Perhaps it's just a sign of advancing age, but I've grown to dread these events. All these advance hype, whether or not the speech represents any notable departure in presidential intentions or even rhetoric. All the solemn advice offered after the text has surely been put to bed. All the almost-ironic rituals of insincere bipartisanship and phony bonhomie....The president will be subject to vast exercises in armchair psychology as his mood, his energy-level, his "resolve," are evaluated by way of how he delivers a rehearsed prepared text.

....Personally, I have trouble engaging in such evaluations, being constantly distracted by the idiotic ritual of clapping and not clapping, standing and not standing, and the full range of mime-like facial contortions, to which we will be treated by the Vice President and the Speaker of the House sitting just behind the president.

Ed, Ed, Ed. What kind of attitude is that? You've forgotten the now annual ritual of seating some inspirational yet normal Americans somewhere near the First Lady, which gives the president a chance to tell an inspirational story that will connect with Joe and Jane Sixpack. This year's "Skutniks" include "the NBA’s first openly gay player, a hero from the Boston Bombing (and the man he helped save), the Moore, Okla., fire chief who led the search for survivors after a devastating tornado, and others." The others apparently include the youngest ever intern at Intel and DC's teacher of the year. And Rep. Linda Sanchez has invited a fast food worker who makes the minimum wage. But that's just the first round! Stay tuned for further announcements.