Kevin Drum

Bonus Friday Cat Blogging - 1 May 2014

| Fri May 1, 2015 12:00 PM EDT

For humans, May Day is a time to celebrate worker solidarity. For Hilbert, it's time to show how jealous he is that Hopper fits under the desk and he doesn't. As you can guess, however, he got bored quickly and headed over to the sofa for a snooze. Hopper, ever victorious, slithered out with no resistance and licked her paws in triumph.

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The GOP Is Trying to Give the 25 Richest Americans a $334 Billion Tax Break

| Fri May 1, 2015 9:00 AM EDT

In mid April, the Republican-controlled House voted to repeal the estate tax, which, despite the GOP's "death tax" messaging, affects only the superrich: Of the nearly 2.6 million Americans who died in 2013, just 4,687 had estates flush enough to trigger the tax. That's because the bar to qualify for the estate tax is quite generous: The first $5.43 million of an individual's wealth is exempt from the tax, and that amount goes up to $10.86 million for married couples. After that point, the tax rate is 40 percent.

The Center for Effective Government (CEG) calculated how much the 25 richest Americans would save if this repeal on the estate tax were to become law. The final tab: $334 billion.

Center for Effective Government

That's a lot of cash! CEG calculated that $334 billion in taxes would be enough to:

  1. Cut the nation's student debt by one-third: The total could be distributed by giving $25,000 in debt relief to each of the 13 million Americans trying to pay off student loans.
  2. Repair or replace every single deficient school AND bridge in America: Give kids more resources for a better education, and get the country's structurally deficient bridges up to snuff.
  3. Give every new US baby a chunk of change: $1,000 at birth, and then $500 a year until their 18th birthday, making a $10,000 nest egg to put toward education, a home, or other opportunities.
  4. Repair all leaking wastewater systems, sewage plumbing, and dams: Thus improving the health of lakes, rivers, and oceans nationwide.

Of course, it's unlikely the tax will actually get repealed. Even if the bill makes it past the Senate, President Obama has promised to veto it. But as the election season heats up with economic inequality at its forefront, the repercussions of the bill are likely to be more political than financial. As Robert J. Samuelson writes at the Washington Post, the GOP has "handed Democrats a priceless campaign gift: a made-for-TV (and Internet) video depicting Republicans as lackeys of the rich."

Freddie Gray and the Real Lesson of Urban Policing

| Thu Apr. 30, 2015 11:58 AM EDT

The Washington Post features a simple headline today that encompasses decades of personal tragedy and public policy disaster:

Freddie Gray’s life a study in the sad effects of lead paint on poor blacks

When Freddie Gray was 22 months old, he had a tested blood lead level of 37 micrograms per deciliter. This is an absolutely astronomical amount. Freddie never even had the slightest chance of growing up normally. Lead poisoning doomed him from the start to a life of heightened aggression, poor learning abilities, and weak impulse control. His life was a tragedy set in motion the day he was born.

But even from the midst of my chemo haze, I want to make a short, sharp point about this that goes far beyond just Gray's personal tragedy. It's this: thanks both to lead paint and leaded gasoline, there were lots of teenagers like Freddie Gray in the 90s. This created a huge and genuinely scary wave of violent crime, and in response we turned many of our urban police forces into occupying armies. This may have been wrong even then, but it was hardly inexplicable. Decades of lead poisoning really had created huge numbers of scarily violent teenagers, and a massive, militaristic response may have seemed like the only way to even begin to hold the line.

But here's the thing: that era is over. Individual tragedies like Freddie Gray are still too common, but overall lead poisoning has plummeted. As a result, our cities are safer because our kids are fundamentally less dangerous. To a large extent, they are now normal teenagers, not lead-poisoned predators.

This is important, because even if you're a hard-ass law-and-order type, you should understand that we no longer need urban police departments to act like occupying armies. The 90s are gone, and today's teenagers are just ordinary teenagers. They still act stupid and some of them are still violent, but they can be dealt with using ordinary urban policing tactics. We don't need to constantly harass and bully them; we don't need to haul them in for every petty infraction; we don't need to beat them senseless; and we don't need to incarcerate them by the millions.

We just don't. We live in a different, safer era, and it's time for all of us—voters, politicians, cops, parents—to get this through our collective heads. Generation Lead is over, thank God. Let's stop pretending it's always and forever 1993. Reform is way overdue.

Here's What Economists Cheering For The Pacific Trade Deal Are Missing

| Thu Apr. 30, 2015 9:00 AM EDT

While Kevin Drum is focused on getting better, we've invited some of the remarkable writers and thinkers who have traded links and ideas with him from Blogosphere 1.0 to this day to contribute posts and keep the conversation going. Today we're honored to present a post from Matt Yglesias, currently the executive editor of Vox.

There is almost nothing in the whole wide world that economists like better than recounting David Ricardo's basic case for free trade. And this is sort of understandable. It's a really cool idea!

If you don't believe me, check out Paul Krugman's 1995 essay on the subject. But for the dime store version, what Ricardo showed—and what economists have been enthusing about ever since—is that Country A benefits (in the sense of what's nowadays known as Kaldor-Hicks Efficiency) from opening up its domestic producers to competition from imports from Country B, even if Country B is better at producing everything.

It's a cool result.

But oftentimes enthusiasm for this result seems to lead Ph.D. economists into all kinds of wild irrelevancies like former Council of Economic Advisors Chair Greg Mankiw's enthusiastic endorsement of the Trans-Pacific Partnership. Mankiw focuses on Adam Smith rather than Ricardo, but in both cases the point is the same—18th-century economists showed that the efficiency of an economy can be improved by opening itself up to imports from abroad.

This is very true, but it also tells us very little about the merits of a 21st-century trade agreement.

One huge flaw is that while classical economics has a fair amount to tell us about the wealth of nations, it doesn't say much at all about the wealth of the individual people inside the nations. A trade deal that enriches Americans who own lots of shares of stock and Central Americans who own lots of plantation land could easily pass the (low) economic bar of efficiency while still making most people worse off.

But an even bigger problem is that many of the biggest barriers to international trade don't come conveniently labeled as barriers to international trade.

Take the Jones Act here in the United States, which says that if you want to ship goods on a boat from one American port to another American port, you need to do so on boats constructed in the United States and owned by US citizens, staffed by US citizens and legal permanent residents, and crewed by US citizens and US permanent residents. Common sense says that this is protectionism for American ship owners, shipyards, and ship crews.

But the actual text of the Jones Act says otherwise. What the 1920 law says is that a merchant marine "sufficient to carry the waterborne domestic commerce…of the United States" is "necessary for the national defense." In other words, we dare not let foreign-owned ships outcompete domestic ones as a matter of national security.

Conversely, if you look at Japan's legendarily protected domestic automobile market you will find essentially nothing in the way of formal barriers to foreign trade. Tariffs on imported automobiles, for example, are currently at zero. The way it works, according to the American Auto Council, is that "Japan has used automotive technical regulations as a means to protect local markets by creating excessively difficult and costly regulatory and certification requirements, with little or no safety or emissions benefits."

That these regulations are mere protectionism is overwhelming conventional wisdom in the United States. But of course, proponents of the Japanese status quo no more see it that way than do proponents of the Jones Act here at home. These are necessary regulations! This is the dilemma of the modern trade agreement.

Smith and Ricardo never imagined a world in which governments routinely regulated large classes of products to promote consumer safety, workers' rights, environmental goals, or national security goals. But lurking behind every regulation is potentially a barrier to trade. What the US Food and Drug Administration sees as public health regulation of dangerous cheese bacteria looks like protectionism to French cheesemakers, and what European Union officials see as public health regulation of hormone-treated beef looks like protectionism to American ranchers.

Tales From City of Hope #9: Day +6 Update

| Wed Apr. 29, 2015 7:11 PM EDT

My white blood count has plummeted to 0.2, my immune system is all but destroyed, and I feel terrible.

In other words, everything is going perfectly. My white blood count will probably drop a bit more tomorrow and then plateau for a day or two. Around Saturday or so new cells will start engrafting and my counts will start to rise fairly quickly. That's the road to recovery, and so far there have been no hiccups at all.

Until then, endless fatigue is my fate. But it will improve soon enough, I hope. In the meantime, the video clip on the right pretty much captures my current mood.

How the Aurora Mass Shooting Cost More Than $100 Million

| Wed Apr. 29, 2015 12:18 PM EDT

"We focus on the proceedings. We focus on the death penalty. We focus on the perpetrator. But we don't focus on the people affected."

That was how Sandy Phillips, whose daughter Jessica Ghawi was among the 12 people murdered in a movie theater in July 2012, described the American public's perception as the trial of mass shooter James Holmes got underway on Monday in Aurora, Colorado. It's a fair point given the inordinate attention that such killers crave, and tend to get, from the media. Yet as Phillips also noted, "that ripple effect of how many people are affected by one act by one person, one animal, is incredibly large."

She's right—not just in terms of the trauma and suffering borne by the victims (an additional 58 wounded and 12 others injured in the chaos), their families, and their communities, but also in terms of the literal cost. The price tag for what was one of the worst mass murders in US history is in fact stunningly high: well over $100 million, according to our groundbreaking investigation into the costs of gun violence published earlier this month.

For a quick explanation of the data behind the large sums our country pays for this problem, watch the following 90-second video, with more details on the Aurora tally continuing just below:

The economic impact of Aurora: For starters, long before the attorneys gave opening statements this week, legal proceedings for Holmes had already topped $5.5 million back in February, including expenses related to the unusually large pool of 9,000 prospective jurors called for the case. Add to that the total costs for each of the 12 victims killed: At an average of about $6 million each, that's another $72 million. For the 58 who survived gunshots and were hospitalized, with an average total cost for each working out to about $583,000, add another $33 million. (Costs for some of the gunshot survivors may have varied widely, of course.) And these figures don't even begin to account for what the city of Aurora, the state of Colorado, and the federal government have since spent on security and prevention related to the attack.

Indeed, a mass shooting like the one in Aurora doesn't just have an outsize psychological impact but also a financial one. And these days, fiscal conservatives may want to note, we're paying that price more often.

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How Many Like Baltimore's Freddie Gray Have Been Killed in Police Custody?

| Wed Apr. 29, 2015 6:00 AM EDT
A protester at a Baltimore PD building on April 21

For many in Baltimore, Freddie Gray's death was shocking but came as little surprise. It was only a matter of time, some said, before Baltimore erupted the way Ferguson, Missouri, did last summer. While no one knows exactly how many Americans die in police custody each year, limited data gathered by the Bureau of Justice Statistics starts to give some sense of scale: At least 4,813 people died while in custody of local and state law enforcement between 2003 and 2009, according to the latest available report, published in 2011. Sixty-one percent of those deaths were classified as homicides.

As I reported last August in Mother Jones, the BJS collects data on what it calls "arrest-related deaths" that occur either during or shortly after police officers "engage in an arrest or restraint process." The agency reports that 41.7 percent of those who were deemed to have been killed by police while in custody were white, 31.7 percent were black, and 20.3 percent were Hispanic. (Others died from intoxication, suicide, or by accidental, natural, or unknown causes.)

But you could be forgiven for suspecting that's not the full picture: There were an estimated 98 million arrests in the United States by local, state, and federal law enforcement from 2003 to 2009, according to FBI statistics. Fifteen states, plus the District of Columbia, did not consistently report deaths in police custody during that period—and Maryland, along with Georgia and Montana, didn't submit any records at all.

In other words, as the turmoil in Baltimore continues, what the data seems to tell us at this point is just how much we still don't know.

Genetically Engineered Happiness Probably Doesn't Mean Fewer Geniuses

| Tue Apr. 28, 2015 2:39 PM EDT

Matt Yglesias says that becoming a new father has changed his mind about genetic engineering:

The main thing is that I now have an instinctive, gut-level understanding of what it is I want for my kid as a parent. And the main thing is that my parental aspirations are very asymmetrical. You want the kid to grow up to be basically happy and healthy. Anything beyond that in terms of genuinely noteworthy achievements would be nice, but honestly not that much nicer than "basically happy and healthy." By contrast, falling significantly short of "basically happy and healthy" would be really bad.

....Long story short, while I used to think of genetic engineering as primarily about making future generations "better" on average, with my dad-glasses on I think it would be largely about making them more mediocre. You would curtail the left end of the distribution curve, but also the right end. Fewer tortured geniuses and alienated, awkward loners who push the boundaries of society and technology.

The image of the tortured genius is rife in Western literature, but in real life it's basically a myth. Are there tortured geniuses among us? Sure. Vincent van Gogh was famously tortured. Kurt Cobain. Georg Cantor.

But the boring truth is that geniuses, on average, are about the same as everyone else aside from being geniuses. Einstein was perfectly well adjusted. Ditto for Shakespeare, Edison, Picasso, Maxwell, Newton, etc. They all had their own quirks and foibles, and were maybe a bit more driven than average, but fell well within the usual norms for healthy and happy. Historical studies of geniuses have all confirmed this. Being unhappy just doesn't have any effect on being a genius.

So no worries on that score, though there are plenty of other things to worry about in the brave new world of human genetic engineering—including the fact that not all parents share Matt's value system in the first place.

Besides, my guess is that trying to engineer geniuses is a dead end anyway. Artificial intelligence will get there first. By the the time we've finally figured out how to reliably produce the next baby Einstein, the machines will just be tittering at us behind our backs.

One Last Fundraising Pitch for Our Spring Drive

| Tue Apr. 28, 2015 9:25 AM EDT

Editor's note: Kevin asked us to repost his message below if we thought it would help in the final days of our Spring Fundraising Drive—and we sure do, the response has been great and we want to be sure everyone sees it. Read his touching letter and pitch in a couple of bucks—or more—via credit card or PayPal if you can swing it.

Our annual Spring Fundraising Drive is wrapping up at the end of the month, but as you all know, I'll be recuperating from my final round of chemotherapy in lovely Duarte, California, right about then. But I didn't want to be left out, so I asked if I could post my note a little earlier than I usually do.

I figure if there's ever been a time when I'm allowed to get slightly more maudlin than usual, this is it. (But just slightly. I have a reputation, after all.) I've been writing for Mother Jones since 2008, and it's been such a great job that it's almost getting hard to remember ever working for anyone else. They've provided me with more freedom to write whatever I want than anyone could hope for. That's been great for me, and I hope for all of you too.

Writing for the print magazine has been a huge gift as well, and it's something I dearly hope to return to when all the chemotherapy is over and my strength is back to normal. It's been a privilege to share pages with such an amazingly talented bunch of journalists.

Truthfully, I've been blessed to have such a great editorial team over the past few months, as well as such a great readership. You guys are truly the best to go through something like this with.

So here's the ask: Mother Jones has done a lot for me and a lot for you over the past few years, and when I get back they're going to keep right on doing it. That makes this fundraising request a little more personal than usual, but if there's ever been a time for you to show your appreciation, this is it. If you can afford five dollars, that's plenty. If you can afford a thousand, then pony up, because you're pretty lucky, aren't you? Either way, when I get back I sure hope to see that my readers have really stepped up to the plate.

Readers like you are a big part of what makes Mother Jones such a unique place. Your support allows me to write about what’s truly important, rather than obsessing over whatever generates the most clicks and advertising revenue. And it's not just me. It gives all of us the independence to write about issues that other places won't touch. It means that we ultimately answer to you, our readers, and not a corporate parent company or shareholders (and you've never been shy about letting us know what you think!).

Thanks for helping make Mother Jones what it is, and for making the last seven years some of the best of my life. And thanks in advance for whatever you can give to keep both me and Mother Jones going strong. Here are the links for donations:

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Politics Is Theater—and Sometimes We Need to Cover it That Way

| Tue Apr. 28, 2015 9:25 AM EDT

While Kevin Drum is focused on getting better, we've invited some of the remarkable writers and thinkers who have traded links and ideas with him from Blogosphere 1.0 to this day to contribute posts and keep the conversation going. Today we're honored to present a post from BloombergView's Jonathan Bernstein, who began his career as political scientist. Since launching his blog in 2009, he's gone on to write about politics and government for the American Prospect, the Washington Post, and many other outlets.

I write today in defense of the theater criticism style of campaign reporting, which took solid hits from Derek Thompson and (in somewhat different wording) Paul Waldman this week. Thompson puts it this way:

A great deal of political writing these days is indistinguishable from theater criticism: Its chief concerns are storyline, costumes, and the quality of public performances....

To state the obvious: This is a really dumb way to try to cover elections. Theater-critic journalism is certainly not as substantive as policy analysis. It's also neither as meaty as terrific behind-the-scenes reporting, nor as harmless as anodyne horse-race coverage. It is, rather, personal opinion about a candidate's authenticity masquerading as nonpartisan analysis of their ability to connect with voters, often detached from any analysis of whether the candidate is really connecting with voters. It is a popular critic, in the orchestra section, writing in the first-person plural.

Sure, there's some terrible theater criticism stuff out there, and if we retired debates about "authenticity" today, it would be a great victory for common sense.

But the problem isn't reporting on candidate rhetoric as if it was theater. In many ways, it is theater! General election debates or official declarations of candidacy, for example, mostly do not affect election outcomes or reveal who candidates truly are. But that doesn't mean they should be ignored.

Let's start over. The real problems come when reporters go beyond what they know, and sometimes beyond what they can know.

That's the case when they use candidate performances to try to figure out who the "real" person underneath the candidate persona might be. In politics, it's the persona that counts. Politicians, when elected, try to keep their promises. But that includes more than policy promises. It also means that they try to "be" the person they promised to be on the campaign trail—and they're often punished if they try to deviate from that (so, for example, Barack Obama is punished when he acts as a partisan cheerleader in part because he promised to be a more unifying figure).

It's also the case in "game changer" journalism, when reporters insist that whatever they are covering is important because it will have a direct effect on election outcomes. The brutal truth is that most campaign events don't have much to do with winning and losing. But they can still be important because they might affect how the winner will govern. Or they may not be "important" at all, but are still interesting in the way any human interest story can be interesting. If politics is important—and it is—then there's nothing wrong with wanting to know what it's like to be at events, or in the back rooms.

Good (regular) theater criticism doesn't usually focus on what an actor's choices mean about who he really is; nor does it primarily concern itself with whether a particular bit of staging will turn a show into a hit or a flop. If theater-critic political journalism can avoid those traps, I'm all for it.