Kevin Drum - February 2014

Does Winning $800 Really Make You More Right Wing?

| Thu Feb. 13, 2014 1:46 PM EST

A few days ago a pair of British researchers released a paper that presented a startling conclusion: winning the lottery makes you more conservative. Apparently, having money, even if it's just money you won randomly, pushes you to the right.

This got a lot of attention, and last night I finally got around to reading a summary of the paper. I was struck by the actual results, which nobody had highlighted. You can see it in the chart on the right, which shows the percentage of people who switched from supporting the Labor Party to supporting the Conservative Party. It's about 13 percent for non-winners, 14 percent for small winners, and 17 percent for winners of £500 or more.

And....I dunno. Aside from technical arguments about sample size, appropriate statistics, robustness, and so forth, I just have to say that this seems unlikely. Even for people with modest incomes, a lottery win of $800 just can't be that big a deal. I know that four percentage points isn't really that large, but even four percentage points seems like an implausibly large effect for a one-time windfall of a few hundred dollars.

At first, I thought I had a clever explanation for this: perhaps being taxed on lottery winnings pushes people a bit to the right. It's a big bite all at once, and it's the kind of thing that often strikes people as unfair. But no. It turns out that lottery winnings are tax-free in Britain. So that's not it.

Bottom line: the results of this study are intuitively appealing, since having money is pretty obviously associated with being more conservative. But I have a hard time believing this result anyway. I'd sure like to see a follow-up in some other country before I take it too seriously.

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The Amazing, Hypnotic Appeal of Rand Paul

| Thu Feb. 13, 2014 1:13 PM EST

So Rand Paul filed a lawsuit yesterday against the NSA's phone record collection program, and he's already getting flack for parachuting in and trying to steal the limelight from a guy who filed a similar suit months ago. Some other awkward questions are being raised too, including one from Steve Benen, who wonders why this entire effort is being run through his campaign operation instead of his Senate office.

I think the answer to that is pretty obvious, but it also gives me a chance to mention something: Is anyone in Congress right now more of a genius at self-promotion than Rand Paul? Sure, Ted Cruz gets some attention for being an asshole, but that's ephemeral. Nobody's really very interested in Cruz.

But despite the fact that Paul's political views make him wildly implausible as a candidate for higher office, everyone finds him endlessly fascinating. He mounts a meaningless "filibuster" and suddenly everyone wants to Stand With Rand. He wants to end the Fed and the tea partiers go gaga. He starts talking about Monica Lewinsky and it prompts a thousand thumbsuckers in the Beltway media. He opposes foreign interventions and somehow manages to hypnotize the punditocracy into thinking that maybe dovishness represents the future foreign policy of the Republican Party. He gets caught plagiarizing and shakes it off. He gets caught hiring an aide who turns out to be a former radio shock jock who specialized in neo-Confederate rants, and it just adds color to his resume.

It's remarkable. Is he just an amazing, intuitive self-promoter, like Sarah Palin? Is he a case study in how being a nice guy (which apparently he is) gets you way more sympathetic coverage than being a lout (which apparently Ted Cruz really is)? Is this just an example of how bored the media is and how desperate they are for even small bits of sideshow amusement?

Beats me. But backbench senators sure don't normally attract the kind of coverage that Rand Paul gets unless they're legitimate presidential prospects. Which Paul isn't. Not by a million miles, and everyone knows it. Don't make me waste my time by pretending otherwise and demanding that I explain why he's obviously unelectable.

But he sure does have the knack of entertaining bored reporters.

Here's the Pitiful Micro-Drama Behind Yesterday's Debt Ceiling Vote

| Thu Feb. 13, 2014 11:41 AM EST

After the House finally decided to just pass a damn debt ceiling bill and head out of town, everyone figured the Senate vote wouldn't produce any drama. But it did, though only in a sad, craven key. It all started when Ted Cruz insisted on filibustering the bill because it gave him a chance to pull off some cheap tea party theatrics, and that's all Cruz cares about. (Apparently he's under the sad delusion that this kind of thing might pave his way to 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue.) Then the vote got up 58 ayes, and sort of stalled. Why? Dave Weigel points me to this report from Manu Raju and Burgess Everett:

Miffed that they have long been asked to take tough votes when the GOP leaders voted “no,” Sens. Susan Collins of Maine and Lisa Murkowski, privately pressured McConnell and Cornyn to vote to break the filibuster, sources said. Murkowski resisted voting for the measure without the support of her leadership team.

As the drama grew in the chamber with the vote’s prospects in doubt, McConnell turned to his colleagues and said: “We’re not doing this again,” according to a source familiar with his remarks.

So McConnell and Cornyn — both facing reelection this year and battling tea party-inspired challengers in their states — took the plunge and risked the political backlash by voting to break a filibuster, the type of vote the two wily leaders have long sought to avoid in this election season.

It was a mini-revolt of the backbenchers. There's a standard bunch of GOP moderates who keep getting asked to take one for the team, and they finally got tired of it. So they told Mitch McConnell they were through bailing out the party unless they got some help. McConnell and Cornyn caved, and that opened the floodgates for a bunch of other Republicans to follow suit. In the end, the debt ceiling increase passed 67-31.

But McConnell managed a small, almost touchingly meager victory. Apparently Harry Reid took pity on him and played along with a plan to keep the votes semi-private by not having the clerk call the roll. Everyone's votes were still recorded, but at least they weren't called out in stentorian tones on CSPAN-2. Weigel:

If this sounds pathetic, that's because it is. Carl Hulse puts it very well here: Most Republicans want the country to keep running, but don't want to provide tough votes if they can be used against them in primaries. But I'd go further than Hulse. More than ever, most members Congress are structurally protected from any consequences for any votes they take. Like I wrote yesterday, only four incumbent Republicans in the House and Senate, total, lost primaries in 2012. None of them lost only because they voted to raise the debt limit.

Individually, they're totally safe. Collectively, they often can't act. So the only real pressure exerted on a party is the external backlash that follows a big, collective failure — the definitive case this year being the government shutdown, the definitive case in 2011 being the collapse of a House Republican debt limit bill.

Four incumbents! But that's all it takes to make all the rest of them petrified with fear of the Koch brothers and the Club for Growth. Senators these days are like our fabled youth who are supposedly so smothered with parenting that they're afraid to face the real world on their own. Senators are so smothered with entitlement to their seats that they're afraid of even the tiniest chance of a primary challenge. The result is a gutlessness in the face of mau-mauing from blowhards like Cruz that makes you want to avert your eyes. Even when it's being done to a bunch of guys you can't stand, it's just too painful to watch.

Rescinding the Cuts to Veterans' Pensions Was In the Cards From the Start

| Wed Feb. 12, 2014 7:39 PM EST

December's budget deal between Paul Ryan and Patty Murray included a bit of relief from the 2011 sequestration cuts, with the relief split evenly between domestic and military budgets. That even split was one of the guiding principles of the deal. But part of the military relief was paid for by $7 billion in cuts to veterans' pensions, something that immediately prompted a storm of protest and, eventually, a move to rescind the cuts. Jared Bernstein comments:

True, that’s not huge bucks in the scheme of things. But the violation of this budget principle should not be taken lightly. A key point of the budget machinations that brought us to where we are today is that automatic spending cuts should be split between evenly between defense and non-defense (forget for a moment, that it’s not the discretionary side of the budget that’s responsible for our longer term fiscal challenges anyway). If Congress starts stealing from domestic programs to boost defense, it will unfairly and unwisely exacerbate already unsustainable pressures on domestic spending.

I'd take a slightly different lesson from this: Democrats got snookered. Only a little bit, and they knew they were being played, but they still got snookered. It was obvious from the start that cuts to veterans' benefits would be unpopular and unlikely to stand, but Democrats agreed to them anyway in order to get the budget deal across the finish line. Maybe that was the right thing to do, but it was no accident. They did it with their eyes wide open.

The Right to Vote Is Too Important to Be Denied to Ex-Felons

| Wed Feb. 12, 2014 3:33 PM EST

Roger Clegg is seriously unhappy about Eric Holder's call for the restoration of voting rights to felons who have served their sentences:

He conveniently ignores the reason for felon disenfranchisement, namely that if you aren’t willing to follow the law, then you can hardly claim a role in making the law for everyone else, which is what you do when you vote....The right to vote can be restored, but it should be done carefully, on a case-by-case basis, once a person has shown that he or she has really turned over a new leaf. The high recidivism rates that Mr. Holder acknowledges in his speech just show why that new leaf cannot be presumed simply because someone has walked out of prison; he’ll probably be walking back in, alas. A better approach to the re-integration that Mr. Holder wants is to wait some period of time, review the felon’s record and, if he has shown he is now a positive part of his community, then have a formal ceremony — rather like a naturalization ceremony — in which his rights are restored.

Let's concede the obvious up front: Released felons are more likely to vote for Democrats than Republicans, so there's an obvious partisan motivation on both sides of this debate.

That said, I favor restoring voting rights to felons, and I'm willing to meet Clegg halfway. I'd be OK with waiting some reasonable period of time1 before restoring voting rights, but I think restoration should be the default after that time has elapsed. That is, after, say, five years, you automatically get your voting rights back unless there's some specific reason you don't qualify. And those reasons should be very clear and spelled out via statute.

My position here is based on a simple—perhaps simplistic—view of political freedom. I believe that liberal democracies require three minimum rules of law: free speech, the right to a fair trial, and universal suffrage. At the risk of stating the obvious, this doesn't mean that nothing else is important.2 But I do mean that if you have these three things, then the odds are very strong that you qualify as a free country. Countries that enforce these rights differ considerably on a wide variety of other metrics and still strike us as mostly free. But I can't think of a country that fails on any of them that we'd consider mostly free.

In other words, I believe the right to vote is on the same level as free speech and fair trials. And no one suggests that released felons should be denied either of those. In fact, they can't be, because those rights are enshrined in the Constitution. Voting would be on that list too if it weren't for an accident of history: namely that we adopted democracy a long time ago, when the mere fact of voting at all was a revolutionary idea, let alone the idea of letting everyone vote. But that accident doesn't make the right to vote any less important.

A probationary period of some kind is probably reasonable. But once you're released from prison and you've finished your parole, you're assumed to have paid your debt to society. That means you're innocent until proven guilty, and competent to protect your political interests in the voting booth unless proven otherwise. No free society should assume anything different.3

1What's reasonable? Let's just leave that for another day, OK?

2No, really, I mean that. There's other important stuff. Honest. But these are the big three. Even freedom of religion can vary a lot within liberal democracies, with a minimum floor set by the fact that most religious expression is protected as free speech. Other important rights—including property rights—can largely be protected as long as majorities can freely express their views and freely elect representatives who agree with them.

3This is doubly true in a country like ours, where incarceration is so rampant and so racially unbalanced.

Figure Skating Is Hopelessly Corrupt

| Wed Feb. 12, 2014 12:45 PM EST

Which sport is more corrupt, ski jumping or figure skating? Normally, my rule of thumb is that the higher up the world ladder you go (local vs. national vs. international) the more corrupt a sport becomes. Thus, I would have guessed that a sport in which the international federation chooses judges would be more corrupt than one in which national federations choose judges. But no! Eric Zitzewitz has compared two sports and finds just the opposite:

Ski jumping has its international federation select the judges for competitions like the Olympics, and I find that they select the least biased judges.  Figure skating lets its national federations select the judges, and my research showed that they select the most biased judges.

This creates different incentives for judges. Ski jumping judges display less nationalism in lower-level competitions — it appears they keep their nationalism under wraps in less important contests to avoid missing their chance at judging the Olympics. Figure skating judges are actually more biased in the lesser contests; they may actually be more biased than they would like to be due to pressure from their federations.

It turns out that ski jumping judges are biased, but the other judges are mostly biased in the other direction, so everything ends up even. Having an American judge doesn't help American jumpers. Figure skating is just the opposite. Not only are national judges biased, the other judges all go along. If an American judge is on the panel, American skaters get higher marks from the American judge and also get higher marks from all the other judges:

Of all these results, I am most intrigued by the contrast between the ski jumping judges undoing each other’s biases and the figure skating judges reinforcing them. When we make decisions in a group at work, we often encounter individuals with strong biases — say to hire a particular type of job candidate. When we do, we have a choice. We can act like a ski jumping judge, and resist the bias, in an effort to keep things fair. Or we can act like a figure skating judge and say “hiring this guy really seems important to Joe, I wonder what he’ll give me in return if I go along.” We have probably all seen examples of both in our lives.

There's a small mountain of other evidence that figure skating is hopelessly corrupt, and has aggressively protected that corruption ever since the judging scandals of 1998 and 2002. Zitzewitz has the evidence if you read his entire post.

But corruption can only go so far. That 15-year-old Russian figure skater, Julia Lipnitskaia, is so good that even I could tell how good she was when she skated in the team competition. All the corruption in the world couldn't have robbed her of the top score.

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The Tea Party Is Dead. Long Live the Tea Party.

| Wed Feb. 12, 2014 11:56 AM EST

Does yesterday's vote for a clean debt ceiling increase mean that the Republican Party is finally coming to its senses? Ed Kilgore doubts it:

You will forgive me for an enduring skepticism on this latest "proof" that "the fever" (as the president calls radical conservatism) has broken, the Tea Party has been domesticated, the grownups are back in control, and the storms that convulsed our political system in 2009 have finally passed away. We've been hearing these assurances metronomically from the moment "the fever" first appeared.

....[But] it is not all that clear just yet that the GOP back-benchers racing to get out of Washington before a winter storm are satisfied with how the deal went down. Their level of equanimity will not improve after puzzled conservative constituents grill them on this "surrender," and after they are congratulated by everyone else on the political spectrum for their abandonment of "conservative principles."

In other words, it's once again premature to read into this development a sea-change in contemporary conservatism or the GOP. Best I can tell from reading conservative media the last few weeks, the reluctance of GOPers to engineer another high-level fiscal confrontation owed less to the public repudiation of last autumn's apocalypse than to the belief that Republicans are on the brink of a historic midterm victory accompanied by a decisive negative referendum on Obamacare. If that's "pragmatism," it's of a very narrow sort.

Yes indeedy. For all practical purposes, the tea party is moribund as an independent force, but only because it's been fully incorporated into the Republican Party itself. Sure, there are still groups out there with "tea party" in their name, but the funding and energy are mostly coming from the Koch brothers, the Club for Growth, ATR, and other right-wing pressure groups that have been around forever.

The difference between previous fluorescences of the nutball right and this one is simple: previous ones either died out in failure or else succeeded only in moving the GOP to the right a bit. The tea party fluorescence has finally captured the party for good. But this doesn't mean that every single political confrontation is going to turn into a scorched-earth campaign. Even fanatics can tell when a particular tactic has stopped working, and even fanatics like to win elections. But that doesn't mean they've lost their influence. They've learned a bit, and perhaps decided to become a bit more sophisticated about their opposition tactics, but they still control the Republican Party. Make no mistake about that.

Chart of the Day: A High School Diploma Ain't What It Used to Be

| Wed Feb. 12, 2014 12:51 AM EST

As we all know, the biggest driving force behind rising income inequality has been the skyrocketing earnings of the top 1 percent. But although that might account for most of the story, it doesn't account for all of it. There's also a growing disparity between the earnings of college grads and the earnings of high school grads.

The chart below, from Pew Research, tells the story. In 1965, high school grads earned 19 percent less than college grads. Since then, the earnings of college grads have gone up (though slowly over the past two decades), while the earnings of high school grads have plummeted. As a result, high school grads today earn a whopping 39 percent less than college grads. Life for the 47 percent of Americans who have high school diplomas but no more is an increasingly parlous one.

The Fed Chairman Wore Sensible Shoes Today

| Tue Feb. 11, 2014 8:16 PM EST

Elizabeth Williamson of Real Time Economics, the home for "economic insight and analysis from the Wall Street Journal," analyzes Janet Yellen's first appearance before Congress today:

She took her seat at 10:01 a.m., clad in a monochrome suit and sensible shoes, carrying a black vinyl binder with rainbow-colored tabs. Once chided by an uncharitable commentator for wearing the same black dress twice in a row, Ms. Yellen hadn’t bought a new suit for the occasion, her spokeswoman, Michelle Smith, confided to a reporter. “I’ll try to come up with some color for you,” she whispered.

Seriously?

Paul Ryan Votes Against the Debt Ceiling Increase

| Tue Feb. 11, 2014 7:19 PM EST

With John Boehner finally crying uncle over the debt ceiling and dumping the whole thing on Democrats, the only suspense left was which members of the Republican leadership would suck it in and vote yes to get the bill over the finish line. Here's the answer:

Speaker John Boehner, Majority Leader Eric Cantor, and Majority Whip Kevin McCarthy voted for the increase. House Budget Chairman Paul Ryan, on the other hand, voted against the bill.

There you go. Even Eric Cantor gritted his teeth and voted for the increase, but Paul Ryan didn't. Kinda makes you think he might still be keeping a presidential run in the back of his mind, doesn't it?