Kevin Drum

America's Middle Class is Losing Out

| Tue Apr. 22, 2014 7:20 AM PDT

First, there was Wonkblog. Then came 538. Then Vox. And now we have The Upshot, a new venture from the New York Times that aims to present wonky subjects in more depth than you normally find them on the front page. Today, David Leonhardt and Kevin Quealy kick off the wonkiness with an interesting analysis of median income in several rich countries. Their aim is to estimate the gains of the middle class, and their conclusion is that America's middle class is losing out.

Their basic chart is below. As you can see, in many countries the US showed a sizeable gap in 1990. Our middle class was much richer than most. By 2010, however, that gap had closed completely compared to Canada, and become much smaller in most other countries. Their middle classes are becoming more prosperous, but lately ours hasn't been:

Germany and France show the same low-growth pattern for the middle class that we see in the United States, but countries like Norway, Ireland, the Netherlands, and Britain have shown much faster growth. What's going on?

[The data] suggest that most American families are paying a steep price for high and rising income inequality. Although economic growth in the United States continues to be as strong as in many other countries, or stronger, a small percentage of American households is fully benefiting from it.

....The struggles of the poor in the United States are even starker than those of the middle class. A family at the 20th percentile of the income distribution in this country makes significantly less money than a similar family in Canada, Sweden, Norway, Finland or the Netherlands. Thirty-five years ago, the reverse was true.

Note that these figures are for after-tax income. Since middle-income taxes have been flat or a bit down in the United States, this isn't likely to have had much effect on the numbers.

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Quote of the Day: Here's How the GOP Shows Its Enviro Cred

| Tue Apr. 22, 2014 6:58 AM PDT

Jonah Goldberg says it's unfair that environmental groups are almost uniformly anti-Republican:

Contrary to what you may have heard, GOP politicians still care about the environment, but they take their cues from public opinion, not from the green lobby. This often means that when the green lobby denounces Republicans (or centrist Democrats) for supporting drilling or fracking, the greens are at odds with the majority of Americans.

So there you go. Conservatives care deeply about the environment, and they demonstrate this commitment by ignoring "global warming hysteria" and instead pandering to public opinion polls at every turn. I'm glad we got that straightened out.

In America, Spending Cuts Are Driven by the Rich

| Mon Apr. 21, 2014 1:15 PM PDT

Over at the Monkey Cage, Larry Bartels presents the remarkable chart on the right. Its message is simple: In most affluent countries, there's net support for government spending cuts, but it doesn't depend much on income. Not only is the level of support modest, but it's the same among rich and poor.

But not in America. Here, demand for spending cuts is driven almost entirely by the well-off:

What accounts for the remarkable enthusiasm for government budget-cutting among affluent Americans? Presumably not the sheer magnitude of redistribution in the United States, which is modest by world standards. And presumably not a traditional aversion to government in American political culture, since less affluent Americans are exposed to the same political culture as those who are more prosperous. A more likely suspect is the entanglement of class and race in America, which magnifies aversion to redistribution among many affluent white Americans.

....The U.S. tax system is also quite different from most affluent countries’ in its heavy reliance on progressive income taxes. The political implications of this difference are magnified by the remarkable salience of income taxes in Americans’ thinking about taxes and government....Income taxes seem to dominate public discussion of taxes and tax policy. For example, years of dramatic political confrontation culminated in a grudging agreement to shave a few percentage points off the Bush tax cuts for incomes over $400,000 per year; meanwhile, a major reduction in the payroll taxes paid by millions of ordinary working Americans expired with barely a whimper.

It's no surprise that spending cuts are popular in other countries: most of them spend a lot of money, and they fund it with high tax rates on just about everyone. But that's decidedly not the case in the United States. Our government spending is relatively low and so are our tax rates. But none of that matters. Rich Americans don't like paying taxes, and as we know from multiple lines of research—in addition to plain old common sense—the opinions of the rich are what drive public policy in America. Add in longstanding grievances against providing benefits to people with darker skins, and you've got a big chunk of the middle class on your side too. This works great for the rich. For the rest of us, not so much.

A Criminologist Takes On the Lead-Crime Hypothesis

| Mon Apr. 21, 2014 10:25 AM PDT

Dominic Casciani of the BBC has a good piece up today about the hypothesis linking lead exposure in small children to violent crime rates later in life. Here's my favorite part:

So why isn't this theory universally accepted?

Well, it remains a theory because nobody could ever deliberately poison thousands of children to see whether they became criminals later in life. Lead theorists says that doesn't matter because the big problem is mainstream criminologists and policymakers who can't think outside the box.

But Roger Matthews, professor of criminology at the University of Kent, rejects that. He says biological criminologists completely miss the point. "I don't see the link," he says. "If this causes some sort of effect, why should those effects be criminal?

"The things that push people into crime are very different kinds of phenomena, not in the nature of their brain tissue. The problem about the theory is that a lot of these [researchers] are not remotely interested or cued into the kinds of things in the mainstream.

"There has been a long history of people trying to link biology to crime — that some people have their eyes too close together, or an extra chromosome, or whatever. This stuff gets disproved and disproved. But it keeps popping up. It's like a bad penny."

If Matthews didn't exist, someone would have to invent him. He plays the role of closed-minded scientist to perfection here. He obviously hasn't read any of the literature about lead and crime; doesn't care about the evidence; and is interested only in sociological explanations of crime because he's ideologically committed to a particular sociological school of criminology. Beyond that, he apparently figures that because phrenology got debunked a century ago, there's no real point in reading up on anything more recent in the field of neuroscience. All this despite the fact that mainstream criminology is famously unable to reasonably account for either the epic crime wave of the 60s through the 80s or the equally epic decline since then.

In any case, if anyone really wants to know why the lead theory isn't universally accepted, the answer is easy: it's not universally accepted because it's new and unproven. Nor does it pretend to be a monocausal explanation for all crime. However, there's pretty good reason to think that neurology might indeed mediate violent behavior, and there's pretty good reason to think that massive postwar exposure to lead may have been a very particular neurological agent mediating a large rise in violent crime starting in the mid-60s. The evidence isn't bulletproof, but it's pretty strong. It deserves more than cavalier dismissal.

Quote of the Day: Will Obamacare Deliver More Votes Than Medicare?

| Mon Apr. 21, 2014 9:35 AM PDT

From Jonathan Bernstein, questioning whether Obamacare will ever be a vote winner for Democrats:

After Medicare passed in 1965, voters “rewarded” Democrats for Medicare with big midterm losses in 1966 and then by putting Republicans in the White House in five of the next six presidential elections.

Actually, that's....true, isn't it? Even granting that there was a lot of other stuff going on in 1966, let's hope that history doesn't repeat itself.

Paul Ryan Goes Small on Medicare Reform

| Mon Apr. 21, 2014 9:11 AM PDT

If you have a good memory, you may recall that a couple of years ago I had an unexpectedly positive reaction to Paul Ryan's latest Medicare reform plan. His 2013 edition was still based on premium support (i.e., vouchers), but he'd made some changes. Instead of simply capping the vouchers at the rate of overall inflation, which wouldn't come close to keeping up with medical costs, Ryan proposed that insurers would bid for Medicare business. Vouchers would be set at the cost of the second-lowest bid, and seniors could use their vouchers to buy into traditional Medicare if they preferred.

Not bad. In fact, it was basically Obamacare with a public option. But there were still problems. Ryan kept his inflation-based cap, which suggested he didn't really believe in the power of competition after all, and seniors would still end up paying more under his plan than they do now.

But over at TPM, Sahil Kapur points out something I missed: Ryan's 2014 Medicare plan is different still. The voucher is now based on the average bid, not the second-lowest bid, and the inflation cap is gone. The market will either produce savings or it won't.

That's good news. But it also goes to show the difficulty of truly reforming Medicare, especially if you don't tackle the broader problems of health care costs at the same time. The CBO has analyzed the effect of Ryan's 2014 changes, and they conclude that by 2020 the Ryan plan would save a grand total of $15 billion per year. That's 2 percent of net Medicare spending.

Now, this is nothing to sneeze at. Savings are savings. However, like the cost containment proposals that are part of Obamacare, this represents a highly speculative estimate. We might get the 2 percent, we might get nothing.

The bottom line is this: Without root-and-branch changes to our health care system, you're simply not going to get big cost savings. If you make radical changes, as Ryan originally tried to do, it comes out of the pockets of seniors. If you keep seniors whole, you're going to get small savings at best. Ryan's 2014 plan might be a good one, but is it worth the experiment for such a small and questionable payback? Hard to say.

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The Right Wing Trains Its Hysterical Eye on Renewable Energy

| Mon Apr. 21, 2014 8:10 AM PDT

Evan Halper of the LA Times filed a story this weekend about new conservative efforts to fight America's biggest energy scourge: solar power. And they're dead serious:

The Koch brothers, anti-tax activist Grover Norquist and some of the nation's largest power companies have backed efforts in recent months to roll back state policies that favor green energy. The conservative luminaries have pushed campaigns in Kansas, North Carolina and Arizona, with the battle rapidly spreading to other states.

....At the nub of the dispute are two policies found in dozens of states. One requires utilities to get a certain share of power from renewable sources. The other, known as net metering, guarantees homeowners or businesses with solar panels on their roofs the right to sell any excess electricity back into the power grid at attractive rates.

....The American Legislative Exchange Council, or ALEC, a membership group for conservative state lawmakers, recently drafted model legislation that targeted net metering. The group also helped launch efforts by conservative lawmakers in more than half a dozen states to repeal green energy mandates.

"State governments are starting to wake up," Christine Harbin Hanson, a spokeswoman for Americans for Prosperity, the advocacy group backed by billionaire industrialists Charles and David Koch, said in an email. The organization has led the effort to overturn the mandate in Kansas, which requires that 20% of the state's electricity come from renewable sources.

There are, technically speaking, some colorable objections to the way net metering (or feed-in tariffs, a similar concept) operate. Sometimes the incentive schemes go awry, and sometimes the pricing goes awry. It's reasonable to insist that these programs be evaluated regularly and rigorously, and modified where necessary. Mandates need to be designed properly too, though in practice they tend to have fewer problems since they allow a lot of flexibility in implementation.

But does anyone think this is what's going on here? A calm, technocratic effort to make sure these programs work better? Of course not. We've now entered an era in which affinity politics has gotten so toxic that even motherhood and apple pie are fair targets if it turns out that liberals happen to like apple pie. There are dozens of good reasons that we should be building out solar as fast as we possibly can—plummeting prices, overdependence on foreign oil, poisonous petrostate politics, clean air—but yes, global warming is one of those reasons too. And since global warming has now entered the conservative pantheon of conspiratorial hoaxes designed to allow liberals to quietly enslave the economy, it means that conservatives are instinctively opposed to anything even vaguely related to stopping it. As a result, fracking has become practically the holy grail of conservative energy policy, while solar, which improves by leaps and bounds every year, is a sign of decay and creeping socialism.

Does it help that the Koch brothers happen to be oil barons who don't want to see the oil industry lose any of the massive government support it's gotten for decades? It sure doesn't hurt, does it?

If there's anything that liberals and conservatives ought to be able to agree on, it's the benefit of renewable power. It's as close to a no-brainer as you can get. But President Obama made green programs part of his stimulus package, and that was that. When tea-party hysteria took over the conservative movement, renewable energy became one of its pariahs. Griping about Solyndra is ancient history. Today's conservatives oppose renewable energy for the same reason they've gone nuts over Benghazi and the IRS and Syrian rebels: to show solidarity to the cause. Welcome to modern American politics.

Nope, There Are No Russians in Eastern Ukraine. Why Do You Ask?

| Sun Apr. 20, 2014 10:59 PM PDT

Imagine my surprise:

For two weeks, the mysteriously well-armed, professional gunmen known as “green men” have seized Ukrainian government sites in town after town, igniting a brush fire of separatist unrest across eastern Ukraine. Strenuous denials from the Kremlin have closely followed each accusation by Ukrainian officials that the world was witnessing a stealthy invasion by Russian forces.

Now, photographs and descriptions from eastern Ukraine endorsed by the Obama administration on Sunday suggest that many of the green men are indeed Russian military and intelligence forces....More direct evidence of a Russian hand in eastern Ukraine is contained in a dossier of photographs provided by Ukraine to the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe, a Vienna-based organization now monitoring the situation in Donetsk and other parts of the country. It features pictures taken in eastern Ukraine of unidentified gunmen and an earlier photograph of what looks like the same men appearing in a group shot of a Russian military unit in Russia.

Nope, nobody here but us surprisingly disciplined, well-trained, and Russian-armed guys in masks taking over government buildings. Anybody got a problem with that?

Housekeeping Notes

| Sat Apr. 19, 2014 8:50 AM PDT

These are real housekeeping notes. That is, notes about stuff around my house. First topic: LED light bulbs.

I've purchased several LED floods that are can-mounted in my ceiling. They're great. The quality of the light is good; they turn on instantly; they don't flicker; and they use hardly any electricity. There's only one problem: they seem to last less than a year. The LEDs themselves last for decades, of course, but the circuitry that drives the bulb doesn't. As near as I can tell, there's eventually enough heat buildup in the can to burn out the chip that controls the whole thing, and when the chip burns out, no more bulb.

I'm just guessing here, but this has now happened three times out of five bulbs I've purchased, and in all three cases the case of the bulb was hot to the touch when I unscrewed it from the base. So here's my question: Does anyone know for sure what's going on here? Is my guess that a chip is burning out probably correct? Am I just buying cheap bulbs? Can anyone recommend a can-mounted flood that's reliable and will actually last for the 25 years that manufacturers so cheerfully promise?

Second: a cell phone update. In last weekend's thread, the Google Nexus 5 got a lot of love, but so did the Motorola Moto X. I had actually made up my mind on the Nexus 5, but the T-Mobile store only sold it in a 16GB version, so I decided to go home and buy one online. But then I started dithering because of all the nice things people had said about the Moto X. Eventually, after far more dithering than makes sense for someone who doesn't use a cell phone much, I decided the slightly smaller Moto X was the better choice. So: thanks, folks! I don't think this would have come across my radar otherwise.

Friday Cat Blogging - 18 April 2014

| Fri Apr. 18, 2014 10:50 AM PDT

I have to leave early today for yet another pulmonary checkup, so Friday catblogging comes a little ahead of schedule this week. Here is Domino pretending she doesn't notice the fabulous feline shadow she's casting in the late afternoon sun. But it is fabulous, no?