Kevin Drum

Quote of the Day: "Death to America" Not Nearly as Unfriendly as You Think

| Tue Nov. 3, 2015 5:18 PM EST

From Iran's supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei:

The slogan "death to America" is backed by reason and wisdom....It goes without saying that the slogan does not mean death to the American nation; this slogan means death to the US’s policies, death to arrogance.

I'm glad we finally got that cleared up. I guess "death to American cultural hegemony and neocolonialist military policies" is a little too long to make a good chant. Now about that "Great Satan" thing....

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Do Anti-Poverty Programs Work Better Than We Think?

| Tue Nov. 3, 2015 2:45 PM EST

Poverty data generally comes from the Census Bureau, which bases its analysis on the Current Population Survey. But do poor people under-report or underestimate the value of the programs they participate in? They might, and it seems to me it's pretty easy to figure this out. Add up the value of, say, all SNAP reports from the CPS, and then compare it to the actual amount of SNAP money the government sends out. If it doesn't match pretty closely, then the survey is off.

A pair of researchers recently took a look at how effective anti-poverty programs are, but they never mention this. I guess it must be harder than I think. Instead, they compare CPS data to detailed administrative data from the state of New York that's known to be highly accurate. They did this for four programs: TANF (basic welfare), SNAP (food stamps), subsidized housing, and general assistance. It turns out that poor people underestimate their annual benefits by about $1,500. This produces two conclusions. First, the authors believe that survey data in general is becoming less reliable over time. Second, they believe that anti-poverty programs lift a lot more people out of poverty than we think.

The chart below shows their basic conclusion. The overall poverty rate, for example, is 13.65 percent. Using conventional CPS data, that goes down to 10.9 percent after benefits. Using the higher-quality data, however, it appears that anti-poverty programs actually reduce the poverty rate to 8.4 percent. The effect is even more dramatic in households headed by single mothers. Apparently the war on poverty is going better than we thought.

Marco Rubio Needs to Come Clean on His Tax Plan

| Tue Nov. 3, 2015 2:01 PM EST

This is ridiculous. Marco Rubio says that percentage-wise his tax plan is more favorable to the poor than the rich, and both left and right-leaning tax groups agree. But—this is only because Rubio's plan includes a new $2,000 fully refundable personal tax credit. For those of you not in the know, "refundable" means you get it even if you don't owe any taxes. So if you're poor, and your tax bill is already zero, you get a check for $2,000 from Uncle Sam. For someone making minimum wage, that's a big chunk of money, and on a percentage basis it means that Rubio's plan is pretty generous.

But is this really Rubio's plan? After last week's debate, a Rubio spokesman told Vox, "Rules would be tailored to ensure that our reforms would not create payments for new, non-working filers." So....maybe the credit isn't fully refundable? Perhaps Rubio will update his plan to explain. Well, he did update his plan, and here's what it now says:

Creates a new $2,000 (individual) / $4,000 (married filing jointly) refundable personal tax credit in place of the standard deduction: Credit phases out beginning above $150,000 (individual) / $300,000 (married filing jointly) and would be unavailable to taxpayers with an annual income in excess of $200,000 (individual) / $400,000 (married filing jointly).

So Rubio took the time to specifically say that his tax credit would phase out at high levels, which makes almost no difference to anyone. But his update continues to say, without qualification, that his tax credit is refundable. This means that everyone gets a $2,000 check regardless of their tax bill.

Look: if you want to go the Ben Carson route and just vaguely say that you're in favor of a 10 or 15 percent flat tax, and don't worry your pretty heads about whether the math works, then fine. But if you offer up a very detailed plan, then you're responsible for the details. Rubio's plan says he's going to offer a $2,000 refundable tax credit to everyone. He was challenged on this, and in an update he still says he's going to offer a $2,000 refundable tax credit to everyone.

It's time for Rubio to knock off the games. If the refundable credit is really available to everyone, he needs to say so. If it's not, then his plan isn't very generous to the poor, and he needs to stop quoting analyses that assume the credit exists. He can't have it both ways. Which is it, Marco?

Justice Takes a Biblical Turn

| Tue Nov. 3, 2015 1:11 PM EST

I feel guilty. The New York Times is running a marathon look at arbitration and other forms of private justice, and I haven't highlighted any of it even though it's long been one of my pet issues. Big corporations increasingly insist on private arbitration if customers have complaints, and this is happening at the same time the Supreme Court is making it harder and harder to file class-action suits. The upshot is that big corporations can still sue each other (you can bet they don't accept arbitration clauses when they sign deals) and ordinary people can sue other ordinary people. But when it comes to ordinary people suing big corporations, good luck. Increasingly, you can't sue them yourself, and law firms can't initiate class actions. Your only option is to go before an arbitrator who depends for her living on getting lots of corporate business. Good luck getting a fair hearing.

Today brings Part 3 of the series, and it's all about the creeping imposition of sharia law in arbitration hearings. No, wait. That's not it:

For generations, religious tribunals have been used in the United States to settle family disputes and spiritual debates. But through arbitration, religion is being used to sort out secular problems like claims of financial fraud and wrongful death.

Customers who buy bamboo floors from Higuera Hardwoods in Washington State must take any dispute before a Christian arbitrator, according to the company’s website. Carolina Cabin Rentals, which rents high-end vacation properties in the Blue Ridge Mountains of North Carolina, tells its customers that disputes may be resolved according to biblical principles. The same goes for contestants in a fishing tournament in Hawaii.

....Pamela Prescott battled for years to prove that she had been unjustly fired from a private school in Louisiana. The crux of her case — which wound through arbitration, a federal appeals court and state court — was references in her employment contract to verses from the Bible.

The Prescott case is sort of amusing. Prescott partially won her complaint based on the arbitrator's cite of Matthew 18:15. Here's what happened next:

The school had required Ms. Prescott to agree to Christian arbitration as a condition of her hiring. But when Northlake lost, it appealed the arbitration award in federal court, arguing that Mr. Thomas’s ruling was inconsistent with Louisiana law.

The case dragged on for four more years. An appeals court in New Orleans ruled that it had no ground to overturn the Christian arbitrator. Northlake appealed the case all the way to the Supreme Court, which declined to hear it.

In other words, religion for thee, but not for me.

Anyway, I guess this is just a typical liberal media cover-up, since we all know the real problem is Muslims and sharia law. But that was too hot for the Times to handle, so instead they're pretending that Christians do the same thing. It's no wonder so many people turn to Fox for the real story these days.

New Poll Has Modest Good News for Hillary Clinton

| Tue Nov. 3, 2015 12:00 PM EST

A new NBC/Wall Street Journal poll suggests that Hillary Clinton's testimony before the Benghazi committee was pretty successful. More people are satisfied about her account of Benghazi. More people think the continuing investigation is unfair. And more people think her email server is not an important issue.

The changes aren't huge, and I imagine there's a hard base of around 35 percent who will go to their graves believing that these are indisputable examples of her unfitness to serve as president. But these are mostly the same people who think Bill Clinton spent his presidency dealing dope out of Mena airport, so there's not much chance of influencing them in the first place.

In other good news for Hillary, she leads Bernie Sanders by 62-31 percent, while a whopping 84 percent think she's most likely to win the nomination. Apparently only about a third of Bernie's supporters actually think he has much of a chance to win.

GOP Primaries Turning Into a New Season of Survivor

| Tue Nov. 3, 2015 10:51 AM EST

The whole Republican bedwetting exercise over their allegedly heinous treatment at the hands of CNBC is certainly entertaining for those of us who aren't Republicans. But Republicans themselves are now making it even more Survivor-like by splitting into two competing tribes: Team Letter and Team Buck Up. The former is outraged at CNBC and plans to write a stern letter to future debate sponsors. The latter thinks the whole thing is ridiculous. Anyone who wants to be president probably ought to be able to handle a few tough questions from John Harwood.

Ed Kilgore goes further. He thinks Team Letter is basically one guy:

The whole debate debate is beginning to look like an effort spearheaded by the one candidate who probably has the most to lose from probing debate questions, current poll leader Ben Carson. As HuffPost's Sam Stein reports, Team Carson would apparently prefer a "debate" made up basically of opening and closing statements.

Could be! In the long run, Carson may be the big loser from last week's debate if this Mannatech stuff takes off. It's in a bit of a lull right now, but my guess is that this is because a few of the big news outlets have assigned reporters to really dig into it, and it will take a couple of weeks for them to put together their pieces.

Elsewhere, Ezra Klein does what I just didn't have the energy to do: compare the actual questions in the first four debates to see if CNBC was really "uniquely hostile." Even Klein can only bring himself to analyze the first six questions, but here's his conclusion:

The Fox News moderators were more aggressive in their questioning and more focused on creating conflict — but Fox News is inside the Republican Party to some degree, and its choice of targets, and its angles of attack, suggested it had the GOP’s best interests at heart. Similarly, CNN’s Republican debate was co-moderated by conservative radio host Hugh Hewitt, and so it was clear, again, that the tough questions were meant to strengthen the GOP, not weaken it.

As for CNN’s Democratic debate, it really was a bit softer on the candidates than the Republican debates....CNBC, by contrast, sought to focus its debate around economic policy, and so its angles of attack reflected critiques of the candidates' plans on taxes, immigration reform, monetary policy, and more. But since the candidates' plans on those issues tend to broadly reflect Republican thinking on those issues, the questions put CNBC in opposition to the Republican Party broadly, rather than to individual candidates narrowly.

As it happens, Ted Cruz’s critique of CNBC was precisely wrong. He lamented that the moderators weren't asking substantive questions, when the questions, up till that point, were more substantive than those asked by any other network.

Yep. The CNBC debate had some problems, but it was about as substantive as any of the other debates. The big problem, I think, is that a focus on economic issues just begs for questions that expose the worst of the modern Republican Party. For example, at one point Trump was asked how he was going to save Social Security, and he blustered that he planned to create a "really dynamic economy." Jeb Bush was almost plaintive in his reply: "The idea that you're just gonna grow your way out of this — I have a plan to grow the economy at 4 percent, but you're gonna have to make adjustments for both Medicare and Social Security."

Bush himself started this whole thing with his absurd plan to grow the economy 4 percent per year, based on nothing in particular. But once he did that, he opened the box. Trump says he'll grow the economy at 6 percent, and what's Bush going to say? My absurd plan is realistic but your absurd plan is absurd? He can't really do that, but it allows Trump to simply declare that no sacrifices at all are required because he's going to turn the American economy into such a powerhouse. It's frustrating for Bush (and for some of the others, notably John Kasich), but it's the natural reductio ad absurdum of the Republican Party's infatuation with magical economic theories.

Is it the CNBC hosts' fault that these kinds of fissures got exposed over and over? No. It's the fault of nonsensical plans with nothing to back them up. It would be derelict not to bring up this stuff.

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Tyrant Obama Issues Rule Creating Death Panels, No One Cares

| Mon Nov. 2, 2015 11:21 PM EST

This happened last Friday and I completely missed it:

Six years after legislation to encourage end-of-life planning touched off a furor over “death panels,” the Obama administration issued a final rule on Friday that authorizes Medicare to pay doctors for consultations with patients on how they would like to be cared for as they are dying.

The administration proposed the payments in July, touching off none of the rancor that first accompanied the idea during debate on the Affordable Care Act in 2009....“We received overwhelmingly positive comments about the importance of these conversations between physicians and patients,” Dr. Conway said. “We know that many patients and families want to have these discussions.”

Huh. It turns out that Republicans never really had any problem with this at all.1 I guess that whole "death panel" thing was just a big misunderstanding. The Wall Street Journal explains what happened:

Since 2010, legislation that would allow reimbursements to physicians for advance planning discussions has gained bipartisan support....The climate has changed in part because of lobbying and education campaigns by medical groups.

Yeah, that must be it. I'm glad we got that straightened out.

1Except for Sarah Palin, of course, who offered her familiar common-sense take: "Government needs to stay the hell out of our 'end-of-life' discussions," she said in a long, um, commentary on Facebook. "I'm so angry at democrat and republican politicians who just rolled their eyes when I, and many others, rose up with warnings that each step forward taken by champions of this socialist program would jerk back two steps from every free American and our God-given rights." Etc.

Russia, Iran Might Be Slightly Out of Sync on Syria

| Mon Nov. 2, 2015 6:02 PM EST

The latest on Syria:

A source close to the Russian delegation at the meeting told Asharq Al-Awsat there had been some disagreements between the Russian and Iranian delegations in Vienna regarding the fate of Assad.

“Russia is dealing with the [question of] the fate of the presidency in Syria from the point of view of the legitimacy of the regime. In that sense it is not insisting on particular people; it is more concerned that any transition in governance must follow international protocols and laws,” the source, who requested anonymity because they were not authorized to speak to the media, said.

Iran, on the other hand, is very insistent on Assad himself . . . because it fears losing its influence in Syria if [his] regime is removed.”

Is this true? Does it matter? I don't know. I do know that I probably don't want the United States getting into the middle of this.

Also: if I were Assad, this might make me a wee bit nervous about my partner-in-arms, Vladimir Putin. I figure Putin is helping out Syria to (a) test his military in live combat, (b) give the United States a poke in the eye, and (c) keep things quiet along his southern border. None of those things really require Assad at the helm. If someone better comes along, that might be the end of a beautiful friendship.

Quote of the Day: Who's Afraid of a Few Snobs?

| Mon Nov. 2, 2015 3:02 PM EST

From Freddie deBoer:

The anxiety that someone, somewhere is looking down their nose at your cultural consumption is the most exhausting aspect of being a consumer of art criticism today.

The topic here, oddly enough, is the demise of Grantland. Since I never read it, I have no idea if deBoer's larger point has merit. But you can always click the link and decide for yourself.

Note to the Left: Let's Save Accusations of Racism and Sexism for Stuff That's Really Racist and Sexist

| Mon Nov. 2, 2015 2:44 PM EST

In the previous post, I called Marco Rubio the next human piñata in the Republican primary. On Twitter I got called out for this: "I think we can all agree that describing Hispanics as 'pinatas' is offensive."

Ralph Nader is mad at Janet Yellen for keeping interest rates low, so he wrote her an open letter suggesting that she sit down with her "Nobel Prize winning husband, economist George Akerlof, who is known to be consumer-sensitive."  Jordan Weissmann called out Nader: "Yes, Ralph Nader just told the most powerful woman in the world to take more tips from her husband."

Neither of these is a big deal. Still, it's way past time to knock it off. "Piñata" is a common term for anyone who's getting beat up, Hispanic or otherwise. And Nader wants Yellen to talk to Akerlof because he thinks Akerlof agrees with him, not because Akerlof is Yellen's husband.

I wouldn't care so much about this except that I think it does real harm to the cause of fighting racism and sexism. In bigger doses it makes us all look silly, and provides an endless series of excuses for ordinary folks to get exasperated at us and for conservatives not to take any of it seriously. We really need to stop this. If conservatives want to be offensive, at least make them work for excuses to ignore those of us who care about this stuff. We're making it too easy for them.