Kevin Drum

Earmarks

| Fri Sep. 12, 2008 3:17 PM EDT

EARMARKS....So now John McCain is flatly saying that Sarah Palin has never requested an earmark? That's just....confused.

Oops, sorry, confused is a code word for "old," so strike that. What I meant is that he's fibbing because he knows that a huge TV audience will hear what he said and that only about 1% of them will ever see or hear the correction.

But as long as we're on the subject, the infamous Bridge to Nowhere is a pretty good example of why this self-righteous nonsense about earmarks is so annoying. It's true that Congress killed the BtN, but this didn't save the American taxpayers a nickel. Sarah Palin just took the money and used it for other Alaska projects. And that's the way all earmarks work: they're simply ways of directing spending. The actual amount of spending is set elsewhere, and it doesn't usually change whether or not any of it is earmarked.

In other words, even aside from the fact that earmarks don't add up to an awful lot of money, killing them wouldn't appreciably change spending levels anyway. The real question is whether members of Congress should have some direct say in where money is spent in their states and districts, or whether federal bureaucrats should make all those decisions. There are actually pretty good arguments on both sides. The bureaucrats have a better sense of the big picture but members of Congress have a better sense of what local residents really care about. Bureaucrats are less likely to be corrupt but members of Congress are less likely to make decisions with only a shallow knowledge of local conditions. And both sides are probably about equally likely to waste money on idiotic boondoggles.

Personally, I don't care much about earmarks, but to the extent I do, these are the grounds for debate. Not total spending. If I had my way I'd simply set aside a fixed amount for earmarks in transportation and infrastructure bills (say, 2-3% of the total) and then sit back safe in the knowledge that local residents have some direct say in how local money is spent, but that the vast majority will be spent in ways that make sense on a larger regional/national basis. But I'm just dreaming.

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Quote of the Day - 9.12.08

| Fri Sep. 12, 2008 2:01 PM EDT

QUOTE OF THE DAY....From McCain advisor Douglas Holtz-Eakin, commenting on why he thinks Republicans continue to campaign manically on tax cuts even though it's plain that tax increases will be necessary in the near future:

"It's the brand. And you don't dilute the brand."

That's what the American auto industry thought too. It hasn't worked out so well for them.

The First Interview....Revisited

| Fri Sep. 12, 2008 1:43 PM EDT

THE FIRST INTERVIEW....REVISITED....Ross Douthat on Sarah Palin:

I know that the people who've decided she's Monica Goodling with a shotgun aren't going to be persuaded by me on this point, but I think Palin really does have the potential to embody the kind of change the GOP desperately needs....But a vice-presidential run isn't the ideal place to develop that potential in the best of times, and a vice-presidential run under the tutelage of the McCain campaign is likely to produce a lot more of what we saw from Palin in her interview last night: Rigorously memorized, carefully regurgitated talking points, a determination to avoid making enormous gaffes, and not much else.

You may be shocked to hear that I sort of agree. I'm not a conservative, but if I were I'd probably find Palin an attractive template for the future of the party. Give her another few years to develop some serious views on non-Alaska issues (and maybe a Senate term to do it in), and she might become a very powerful presence in the party.

But right now? Underprepared hardly begins to describe her. It was late last night and I didn't explain in any detail why I found her Charlie Gibson interview so embarrassing, but the answer is simple: she wasn't even able to regurgitate the usual high school-level talking points that politicians thrive on. It was more like kindergarten level talking points. President Bush is ridding the world of Islamic extremism. Terrorists are hellbent on destroying our nation. We must do whatever it takes. We must not blink, Charlie. Terrorists are hellbent on destroying America. All options must be on the table. And that's why winning in Afghanistan is so important. Oh, and Iraq too. We have to win in Iraq and Afghanistan. The surge is great! We need a surge in Afghanistan.

This is like a parody of warblogs circa 2002. Somebody apparently told her that no matter what the question was, she only needed to parrot mindless bellicosities (but be sure to mention that war should be a last option!) and then move on. This is just not serious stuff. More here from James Fallows.

Adjusting for (De)flation

| Fri Sep. 12, 2008 12:53 PM EDT

ADJUSTING FOR (DE)FLATION....The New York Times reports on consumer activity:

The price index for finished goods, a measure of the change in prices businesses pay, fell 0.9 percent in August after a 1.2 percent increase in July, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics.

Consumers' spending on retail and food decreased 0.3 percent in August after a 0.5 monthly drop in July, according to the Census Bureau. Economists had been expecting an increase of 0.2 percent.

Does this mean that actual sales of goods and services were down 0.3 percent? Or, if you adjust for inflation, does it mean that retail sales were actually up?

I have no idea, and nowhere in the NYT piece do they tell you. Nor do the Washington Post or the Wall Street Journal. The only way to find out is to go to the Census Bureau press release itself, which says:

The U.S. Census Bureau announced today that advance estimates of U.S. retail and food services sales for August, adjusted for seasonal variation and holiday and trading-day differences, but not for price changes, were $381.2 billion, a decrease of 0.3 percent (±0.5%)* from the previous month, but 1.6 percent (±0.7%) above August 2007.

So the reported drop is from July to August, not from last year. And it's not adjusted for inflation. Actual, inflation-adjusted sales were probably up a bit compared to last month, but down about 4% from last year.

This is all a bit murky since we don't have final inflation/deflation numbers yet for August, and overall I don't know if this is good or bad news anyway. But that's the news. Why can't the financial press report it?

The First Interview

| Fri Sep. 12, 2008 3:20 AM EDT

THE FIRST INTERVIEW....Honest, I'm trying not to write endlessly about Sarah Palin. I really am. But this interview with Charlie Gibson is just embarrassing. Is the Republican Party really serious about this?

Over at The Corner, though, Lisa Schiffren thinks the problem isn't Palin, it's Gibson having the gall to ask substantive questions: "For the record, it just looks condescending and inappropriate for one of the great minds of the national media to sit, notebook in hand, quizzing this younger woman, as someone said, as if she were a grad student." Goodness yes. Holding a reporter's notebook and asking questions. Charlie should have known better than to do that while interviewing a 44-year-old woman running for vice president of the United States.

Jon Chait has more here. Yglesias here. M.J. Rosenberg highlights another part of the interview here.

Meanwhile, non-insane conservative foreign policy guy Dan Drezner reports on the private reaction of GOP foreign policy heavyweights to Palin's nomination: "Having chatted with a few members of this mandarin class, I would describe the range of opinion about Palin's foreign policy bona fides as varying from 'underwhelmed' to 'you gotta be f#$%ing kidding me?'"

But none of that matters. She didn't leap up from her chair and demand that we nuke Moscow unless Russia withdraws from Georgia by tomorrow, so I guess her appearance with Gibson counts as a win for McCain. Those seem to be the current rules, anyway.

Service

| Fri Sep. 12, 2008 1:54 AM EDT

SERVICE....I don't have any lengthy comments to make about CNN's McCain-Obama show tonight, but I will say two things. First, listening to McCain bleat unctuously about the corrosive tone of the campaign almost made me ill. Second, Obama really does need to sharpen up his answers. Make your point and move on, Senator.

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Walkability

| Thu Sep. 11, 2008 10:49 PM EDT

WALKABILITY....Responding to my post yesterday about walkability in Irvine (actually, just the Woodbridge area of Irvine, but whatever), Matt Yglesias brings up a key point: at low densities you can have a nice suburb and at high densities you can have a walkable neighborhood, but there's no happy medium where you have both.

This gives me the opportunity, just for the hell of it, to post an excerpt from Joel Garreau's Edge City, a book that's dated but still one of my all-time favorites. An edge city is basically just a suburb that also has lots of office space (like Irvine, for example, or Tyson's Corner), and its density is measured in FAR, or Floor-to-Area-Ratio. For example, 10,000 square feet of office space on 100,000 square feet of land gives you a FAR of 0.1. Developers think of FAR like this: "The fundamental unit of density, from which all calculations spring — parking, hence profitability, hence human behavior, hence civilization." Here are the basic, inviolate laws of FAR:
  • The level of density at which automobile congestion starts becoming noticeable in edge city: 0.25 FAR.

  • The level of density at which it is necessary to construct parking garages instead of parking lots because you have run out of land: 0.4 FAR.

  • The level of density at which traffic jams become a major political issue in edge city: 1.0 FAR.

  • The level of density beyond which few edge cities ever get: 1.5 FAR.

  • The level of density at which light rail transit starts making economic sense: 2.0 FAR.

  • The level of density of a typical old downtown: 5.0 FAR.

  • The density-gap corollary to the laws of density: Edge cities always develop to the point where they become dense enough to make people crazy with the traffic, but rarely, if ever, do they get dense enough to support the rail alternative to automobile traffic.

This comes from "The Laws," which is the appendix to Edge City and its most entertaining part. Highly recommended, even though it's now nearly two decades old.

Other worthwhile responses to my walkability post are here, here, and here. I also think the "tipping point" concept is probably useful here. One of the points I didn't make clearly yesterday but should have is that I don't think walkability is one of those things where you can hope to make incremental changes in order to get incremental improvements. (Outside of dense urban cores, that is.) Woodbridge, as suburbs go, is pretty walkable: probably about 70% as good as you're likely to realistically get. But this has not produced a neighborhood that's gone from 100% car-centric to 90% car-centric. At best, it's produced a neighborhood that's gone from 100% car-centric to 99.9% car centric.

The problem, I think, is that walkability comprises a lot of things and you have to have all of them in full measure. You need high density and street level retail and scarce and expensive parking and good transit and a wide variety of easily accessible shops and restaurants. And a few other things as well. If you have four out of five it's not good enough. If you have medium density but not high density it's not good enough. If shops are 20 minutes away instead of 5 minutes away, it's not good enough. Improving any one of these things has virtually no impact until all of them are good enough. And that's why genuine walkability is really, really hard to get outside of urban cores.

Plus Americans are lazy. Here's another one of The Laws: "In either a downtown or an Edge City, if you do everything you can to make casual use of the automobile inconvenient at the same time you make walking pleasant and attractive, you maybe, just maybe, can up the distance an American will willingly walk to fifteen-hundred feet. A quarter of a mile. And this at the substantial risk of everybody saying forget it and choosing not to patronize your highly contrived environment at all." And if you don't do this? Then the maximum distance an American will willingly walk is 600 feet.

Georgia and NATO

| Thu Sep. 11, 2008 7:48 PM EDT

GEORGIA AND NATO....From Charlie Gibson's interview with Sarah Palin:

The governor advocated for the admittance of Georgia and Ukraine into NATO.

When Gibson said if under the NATO treaty, the United States would have to go to war if Russia again invaded Georgia, Palin responded: "Perhaps so. I mean, that is the agreement when you are a NATO ally, is if another country is attacked, you're going to be expected to be called upon and help."

This is not a gaffe of any kind. Nor is it something that Palin blurted out due to inexperience. John McCain's official position on NATO expansion is that we should include Georgia and Ukraine posthaste. This means that if either of those countries gets into a border skirmish — or worse — with Russia, the United States may be obligated to go to war on their behalf.

However, unless I'm mistaken, this is also Barack Obama's official position. So I wouldn't expect a whole lot of pushback on this from his camp. Which is too bad, since the American public really ought to think long and seriously about whether we should be reponsible for defending distant countries that have long histories of ethnic strife and unstable borders. Maybe we should. Maybe they really are that important. But it would be nice to give it a good, hard think before we dive in.

Troopergate Update

| Thu Sep. 11, 2008 3:57 PM EDT

TROOPERGATE UPDATE....Steve has the latest on Troopergate. Bloomberg has the latest on the McCain camp's attempt to shut down the investigation.

Healthcare, McCain Style

| Thu Sep. 11, 2008 3:29 PM EDT

HEALTHCARE, McCAIN STYLE....Joe Klein wants to get out of the gutter and talk about the issues:

Today's issue: health insurance. John McCain wants to tax your employer-provided health care benefits. He wants to replace those benefits with an insufficient tax credit — $2500 for individuals and $5000 for families (the average cost per family for health insurance is $12000).

....It is amazing to me that Obama campaign has let things go this far without pointing out that McCain — who opposes the energy bill because it would increase taxes on oil companies — is actually proposing a tax increase on health care benefits for American workers. But that is precisely what the Senator from Arizona is doing.

Let's unpack this. If you get health insurance through your employer, as most Americans do, you don't pay taxes on it. Under McCain's plan you would. So if the insurance premium for your family is $14,000 (the best estimate available for 2009), you'll pay federal income tax, state income tax, and payroll tax on that amount, and your employer will pay the employer share of the payroll tax on it. For an average family, that comes to about $4,900.

But McCain's plan provides you with a $5,000 tax credit, so you're ahead of the game. Everything is OK.

Except there's some fine print hidden where McCain hopes no one will see it: his tax credit increases each year only by the normal inflation rate. Your premiums are going to increase way faster — probably around 6-8% per year. That means your taxes are going to go up 6-8% per year too. The chart on the right, courtesy of CAP, shows the gory details: the tax credit doesn't keep up with the increase in tax payments. In other words, your taxes go up.

If you're in a somewhat higher tax bracket than the median, the news is even worse because your marginal federal tax rate is higher. If you live in a high-tax state like California, the news is even worse because your marginal state tax rate is higher. If you have a big family, the news is even worse because your premium will be more than $14,000 and the taxes you pay on it will therefore be higher. If your employer decides to ditch group healthcare entirely because there's no longer any tax advantage to it, then you're really screwed. And if that happens and you happen to have a chronic illness that no private insurer will touch — well, screwed hardly begins to describe it.

So that's McCain's healthcare plan: make it more expensive, make it riskier, and for some people, make it nonexistent. There's more to say about this, and you can get all the details in this CAP report written a couple of months ago. This stuff is hardly a secret.