Kevin Drum

Quote of the Day: Congressmen and Crackpots

| Mon Aug. 25, 2014 7:07 PM EDT

From Jon Chait, responding to Paul Ryan's list of favorite books about economics and democracy—which notably fails to include his former favorite book, Ayn Rand's Atlas Shrugged:

It seems the lesson Ryan has drawn from the harmful publicity surrounding his Rand fixation is not that he shouldn’t associate himself publicly with crackpot authors but merely that he should find different crackpot authors.

Here is Chait's description of Jude Wanniski's most famous book, which earns a place on Ryan's list.

The Way the World Works is a novel argument that the entire history of the world can be explained by changes of tax rates. The fall of the Roman Empire, the rise of the Nazis — Wanniski attempts to explain it all as a result of taxes. It is a work of genuine derangement on the same intellectual level as the sorts of unpublishable hand-scrawled diatribes that I used to scan through when I sorted the mail as a magazine intern.

But...but...but—look! Michael Moore!

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Yes, Republicans Really Are Unprecedented in Their Obstructionism

| Mon Aug. 25, 2014 1:48 PM EDT

When we talk about Republican obstruction of judicial nominees in the Senate, the usual way is to look at filibusters and cloture votes. But that can sometimes be misleading, since cloture votes can happen for a variety of reasons. Or we can look at the raw number of seats filled. But that can be misleading too, since this can depend on how aggressive the president is about nominating new judges in the first place. A better way may be to simply look at how long nominees are delayed. That's easier to measure, and long delays mostly happen for only one reason: because the minority party is blocking floor votes.

Via Jonathan Bernstein, the chart on the right comes from @Mansfield2016. It shows pretty clearly what's happened to judicial nominees over the past couple of decades. Under George HW Bush, nominees that made it to the Senate floor were voted on almost immediately. The majority Democrats waited only a few days to schedule a vote.

That jumped suddenly when Bill Clinton became president and Republicans started delaying his nominees. Things settled down and delays plateaued during George W Bush's administration.

And then came Barack Obama. Once more delays spiked. Even after the rules were changed, delays have stayed high, averaging about 80 days. This is far higher than it was under Bush or Clinton. Bernstein comments:

I believe that Senate rules requiring super-majority cloture for judicial nominations are an excellent idea, provided the minority observes the Senate norm of using filibusters rarely. Unfortunately, Republicans simply haven’t abided by longstanding Senate norms. After Obama's election, they suddenly insisted that every nomination required 60 votes — an unprecedented hurdle. They blockaded multiple nominations to the DC Circuit Court. They have, before and after filibuster reform, used Senate rules to delay even nominations that they have intended ultimately to support. Since reform, they have imposed the maximum delay on every single judicial nominee.

Ideally, I'd like to see a compromise that restores the minority's ability to block selected judicial nominees. But right now, the more pressing concern is that if Republicans win a Senate majority in November, they may simply shut down all nominations for two full years. That would be absolutely outrageous. Yet it seems entirely plausible.

That final comment is what makes these numbers even more outrageous. It's fairly normal for a minority party to start delaying nominees in the final year or two of an administration. Obviously they're hoping to win the presidency soon and they want to leave as many seats open as possible for their guy to fill. This tends to inflate the average numbers for an administration.

But that hasn't happened yet for Obama. His numbers for his first five years are far, far higher than Bush's even though Bush's are inflated by delays during his final year in office. It's just another example of the fact that, no, both parties aren't equally at fault for the current level of government dysfunction. Republicans greeted Obama's inauguration with an active plan of maximal obstruction of everything he did, regardless of what it was or how necessary it might be in the face of an epic economic collapse. No other party in recent history has done that. It's a new thing under the sun.

This Time Is Different

| Mon Aug. 25, 2014 10:42 AM EDT

I was chatting with a friend about the relentless, one-sided hawkishness on display yesterday on the morning chat shows, and he responded:

The recurring "stay tuned for" loop are clips of McCain ("We never should have left"), Graham ("ISIS no longer JV"), Ryan ("What's the president's plan for eradicating ISIS?"). Over and over again. Nowhere are clips of people urging caution or restraint. War is great news, is action, is drama. Whether consciously or not, the media simply drives inevitably to pushing for a clash.

It's really beyond belief. Israel invades Lebanon and gets Hezbollah out of the deal. We arm the mujahideen and get the Taliban and Al Qaeda out of the deal. We depose Saddam Hussein and play kingmaker with Nouri al-Maliki, and we get ISIS out of the deal. But hey—this time is different. Really. This time we'll be done once and for all if we just go in and spend a decade wiping the theocratic butchers of ISIS off the map. This time there won't be any blowback. This time we'll fix the Middle East once and for all. This time things can't possibly get any worse. Right?

Of course, the hawks always have Munich, don't they? Always Munich. And so we need to fight. We need troops. We need leadership. And no one with political aspirations really wants to argue the point. There's no future in siding with the thugs, is there?

Besides, maybe this time really is different.

Hating On Obamacare Not Really a Great Strategy for GOP Governors

| Mon Aug. 25, 2014 9:40 AM EDT

Does opposing Obamacare hurt you or help you if you're a Republican governor? To find out, Sam Wang took a look at nine Republican governors who were first elected in 2010 and are now running for reelection. The chart on the right tells the story. Governors who have resisted Medicaid expansion—a key part of Obamacare, and the one that most directly affects individual states—are generally doing poorly. Those who accepted Medicaid expansion are polling pretty well. However, Wang notes that Obamacare probably isn't entirely responsible for this divide:

Think of the Medicaid expansion as a “proxy variable,” one that is predictive of stands on many other issues. For example, even as Pennsylvania voters have trended toward the Democrats, Corbett got behind several radical redistricting schemes, cut education funding deeply, and compared gay marriage to incest. In Maine, LePage has called legislators idiots and state workers corrupt, told the N.A.A.C.P. to “kiss [his] butt,” and held multiple meetings with “sovereign citizens” who advocate secession. In short, if you’re too hard-core or offensive, some of your constituents can get turned off.

The Republicans Susana Martinez, of New Mexico, John Kasich, of Ohio, and Rick Snyder, of Michigan, look as strong as they did when they were first elected. All three accepted the Affordable Care Act and its Medicaid expansion....This stance by Martinez, Kasich, and Snyder has been predictive of their support of other issues with that have drawn support from both parties. Martinez and Kasich, for example, have pursued education-reform policies that have gained a lot of traction among both Democrats and Republicans. To the extent that governors hold on to their offices in close races, it may be because they have focussed on issues that are important to the voters in their states rather than the core views of their party.

In other words, refusing the Medicaid expansion is the mark of a true-believing wingnut, and that's not such a great place to be right now. Conversely, accepting the Medicaid expansion is the mark of a pragmatic conservative, and those folks have remained relatively popular.

Bonus Sunday Cat Blogging - 24 August 2014

| Sun Aug. 24, 2014 11:53 AM EDT

I've gotten several queries about how Mozart is doing, and as you might expect, the answer is that Mozart is delighted with his new home. Last night at dusk he was leaping around in my mother's native habitat garden and chasing all the little things that only cats can see at dusk. Everyone else is doing fine too. So as a bit of bonus catblogging, here's my mother's entire brood. From top to bottom, we have Mozart, Ditto, and Tillamook. Enjoy.

Friday Cat Blogging - 22 August 2014

| Fri Aug. 22, 2014 2:55 PM EDT

Here's Domino helping Marian with a bit of gardening in the front yard. The days may not be sunny and warm forever, so she's taking advantage of whatever ones are left to her.

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Did Obamacare Wreck a Baseball Game?

| Fri Aug. 22, 2014 2:20 PM EDT

A few days ago, a Chicago Cubs game was called in the fifth inning after the grounds crew had so much trouble spreading a tarp that the field got soaked during a rain delay and play couldn't be continued. The Corner reveals what really happened:

Insiders at the ball club report that the real culprit is Obamacare. Because the Affordable Care Act requires offering health benefits to employees who work more than 130 hours per month or 30 hours a week (“full time”), the Cubs organization reorganized much of its staff during the off-season. Sources that spoke to the Chicago Sun-Times claimed that, on Tuesday night, the crew was drastically “undermanned.”

Huh. What do you think of that, Dean Baker?

The problem with this story is that employer sanctions are not in effect for 2014. In other words, the Cubs will not be penalized for not providing their ground crew with insurance this year even if they work more than 30 hours per week. Apparently the Cubs management has not been paying attention to the ACA rules. This is yet another example of the skills gap that is preventing managers from operating their businesses effectively.

Quite so. My guess is that this is just another installment in the long-running effort of American corporations to use Obamacare as a scapegoat for everything under the sun. Usually this has to do with raising copays for their employees or something like that, but the ingenuity of American capitalism knows no bounds. Why not blame a rain delay on Obamacare too?

For a more likely cause of penny pinching on the grounds crew, the Wall Street Journal has you covered.

Chart of the Day: Welfare Reform and the Great Recession

| Fri Aug. 22, 2014 1:04 PM EDT

CBPP has posted a series of charts showing the effects of welfare reform on the poor over the past couple of decades. In its first few years it seemed like a great success: welfare rolls went down substantially in the late 90s while the number of poor people with jobs went up. But the late 90s were a boom time, and this probably would have happened anyway. Welfare reform may have provided an extra push, but it was a bubbly economy that made the biggest difference.

So how would welfare reform fare when it got hit with a real test? Answer: not so well. I added some red recession shading to the CBPP chart on the right, and as you can see, the Great Recession created an extra 1.5 million families with children in poverty. TANF, however, barely responded at all. There was no room in strapped state budgets for more TANF funds:

The TANF block grant fundamentally altered both the structure and the allowable uses of federal and state dollars previously spent on AFDC and related programs. Under TANF, the federal government gives states a fixed block grant totaling $16.5 billion each year....Because the block grant has never been increased or adjusted for inflation, states received 32 percent less in real (inflation-adjusted) dollars in 2014 than they did in 1997.  State minimum-required contributions to TANF have declined even more. To receive their full TANF block grant, states only have to spend on TANF purposes 80 percent of the amount they spent on AFDC and related programs in 1995. That “maintenance of effort” requirement isn’t adjusted for inflation, either.

Welfare reform isn't a subject I know a lot about. I didn't follow it during the 90s, and I haven't seriously studied it since then. With that caveat understood, I'd say that some of the changes it made strike me as reasonable. However, its single biggest change was to transform welfare from an entitlement to a block grant. What happened next was entirely predictable: the size of the block grant was never changed, which means we basically allowed inflation to erode it over time. It also made it impossible for TANF to respond to cyclical economic booms and busts.

Make no mistake: this is why conservatives are so enamored of block grants. It's not because they truly believe that states are better able to manage programs for the poor than the federal government. That's frankly laughable. The reason they like block grants is because they know perfectly well that they'll erode over time. That's how you eventually drown the federal government in a bathtub.

If Paul Ryan ever seriously proposes—and wins Republican support for—a welfare reform plan that includes block grants which (a) grow with inflation and (b) adjust automatically when recessions hit, I'll pay attention. Until then, they're just a Trojan Horse for slowly but steadily eliminating federal programs that help the poor. After all, those tax cuts for the rich won't fund themselves, will they?

Obamacare May Not Be Popular, But Its Provisions Sure Are

| Fri Aug. 22, 2014 10:56 AM EDT

Brian Beutler on the way health care reform is playing out in the Arkansas Senate race:

The most interesting thing about Senator Mark Pryor’s decision to tout his support for the Affordable Care Act in a well-financed, statewide television ad isn’t that he stands apart from other embattled Democrats this election cycle. It’s that Republicans scrambled to spin the story, insisting to reporters that Pryor couldn’t possibly be running on Obamacare if he won’t refer to the law by name.

....Instead, Pryor says, "I helped pass a law that prevents insurance companies from canceling your policy if you get sick or deny [sic] coverage based on pre-existing conditions.” Maybe he shouldn’t have said anything about “a law” at all, but that’s a niggling, semantic critique. That Republicans working to defeat Pryor are asking reporters to squeeze the word “Obamacare” into this sentence is an admission that they’ve lost the policy fight. They criticize Pryor for eschewing the label, because the label’s just about the only thing they’re comfortable assailing.

I suppose this isn't the biggest thing in the world, and as Beutler says, Republicans did manage to talk several reporters into mentioning this. So from their point of view, it's just savvy media strategy. Besides, the truth is that Republicans have always focused on only a few things in their critique of Obamacare. That's because polls have shown for years that most of the provisions of the law are popular even though support for the law itself is pretty shaky. This causes Republicans endless grief, since Democrats get to harass them relentlessly about whether they oppose closing the donut hole; whether they oppose subsidy assistance; whether they oppose guaranteed issue; and so on. Republicans can hem and haw about how they'd keep all this stuff and only get rid of the nasty taxes and mandates, but even the dimmer bulbs in the GOP caucus know perfectly well that this is untrue.

In any case, other Democratic politicians have touted their support for specific provisions of Obamacare, so Pryor isn't really doing anything new. He's just being smart. He knows that denying coverage to those with pre-existing conditions is extremely unpopular, even among conservative voters, and he'd love to draw his opponent into a debate about exactly that. Tom Cotton has so far refused to take the bait, pretending that he'd somehow keep that provision while repealing everything else. This is a bald-faced lie, of course, but if he sticks to that story like glue he can probably avoid any serious damage from Pryor's attacks.

The Intersection of Social Liberalism and Social Media is Brutal

| Thu Aug. 21, 2014 3:14 PM EDT

I think it's safe to say that Freddie deBoer is considerably to my left. But even he finds much of contemporary social liberalism dispiriting and self-righteous:

It seems to me now that the public face of social liberalism has ceased to seem positive, joyful, human, and freeing. I now mostly associate that public face with danger, with an endless list of things that you can’t do or say or think, and with the constant threat of being called an existentially bad person if you say the wrong thing.

....I’m far from alone in feeling that it’s typically not worth it to engage, given the risks....If you are a young person who is still malleable and subject to having your mind changed, and you decide to engage with socially liberal politics online, what are you going to learn immediately? Everything that you like is problematic. Every musician you like is misogynist. Every movie you like is secretly racist. Every cherished public figure has some deeply disqualifying characteristics. All of your victories are the product of privilege. Everyone you know and love who does not yet speak with the specialized vocabulary of today’s social justice movement is a bad, bad person. That is no way to build a broader coalition, which we desperately need if we’re going to win.

....People have to be free to make mistakes, even ones that we find offensive. If we turn away from everyone that says or believes something dumb, we will find ourselves lecturing to an empty room. Surely there are ways to preserve righteous anger while being more circumspect about who is targeted by that anger. And I strongly believe that we can, and must, remind the world that social justice is about being happy, being equal, and being free.

Now, I suspect that this is a more acute problem on university campuses than in the rest of the world, so it hits deBoer and his students harder than it does many of the rest of us. But I think deBoer is right when he says that social media has largely sanded away the differences. If you make a mistake these days, you won't just get a disapproving stare or maybe an email or two about it. You'll get an endless stream of hate from Twitter and Facebook. And while it's easy to point out that a few hundred angry tweets aren't really all that many compared to the millions of people on Twitter, it can feel devastating if you're on the business end of this kind of avalanche. You're not thinking in terms of percentages or small fringes, you're just reading what seems like a relentless flood of scorn and malice. And it can be overwhelming, especially if you're not accustomed to it.

Some of this is simply the price of speaking in public. The problem is that in the past there were lots of different publics. Some were small, maybe no more than family or friends. Some were a bit larger: people you worked with, or went to school with. There were local publics, statewide publics, and national publics. The bigger the public you addressed, the more vitriol you could expect to get in return. The vitriol still wasn't fun, but it was, in some sense, a trade made with your eyes open.

No longer. If you write a blog post or a tweet, and the wrong person just happens to highlight it, your public is suddenly gigantic whether you meant it to be or not. Then the avalanche comes. And, as deBoer says, the avalanche is dominated by the loudest, angriest, least tolerant fringes of the language and conduct police.

I suspect this wouldn't be so bad if there were an equal and opposite reaction to the avalanche. If the hundreds of angry tweets were balanced by hundreds of more thoughtful tweets, it wouldn't be so overwhelming. But what thoughtful person wants to get involved in this kind of thing? No one. That's almost the definition of being thoughtful, after all. So the vitriol pours in, and it's soul-crushing.

And with that, I'm sort of petering out. I feel like I should have a sharper point to make about all this, but I don't really. I don't know what the answer is, or even whether there is an answer. Maybe if I get a few hundred hate-tweets in response, I'll think of something.