Kevin Drum

Friday Cat Blogging - 30 October 2015

| Fri Oct. 30, 2015 1:50 PM EDT

Hopper has been hogging the catblogging show lately, so today you get a double dose of her brother: Hilbert and his shadow. That shadow looks very Halloween-y, doesn't it? Of course, that means lots of firecrackers tomorrow, which probably means lots of time spent hiding under the bed. On the bright side, we also set our clocks back, so everyone gets to sleep in an extra hour to make up for it. That sounds like a pretty good trade to me. I'm not sure what the cats think of it.

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Head Witch Hunter Now Wants Fewer Witch Hunts

| Fri Oct. 30, 2015 1:25 PM EDT

Today's Charles Krauthammer column cracks me up:

Skip the investigations, win the election

I’m all for demonstrating malfeasance. But the GOP House has given a five-year display of its inability to successfully demonstrate anything.... Operation Fast and Furious....IRS....Planned Parenthood....Benghazi.

....In each of these cases, Republicans had the facts and the argument. And yet in every one, they failed. What makes them think that they will fare any better in the next iteration, the impeachment of a minor official in an expiring administration?

Krauthammer is a hardcore conservative, but he's also a very high-IQ conservative. So this makes me wonder: does he really believe this? Or does he know it's baloney but figures he needs some kind of acceptable cover to get Republicans off their Ahab-like zeal for investigating nothingburgers?

As I'm sure Krauthammer knows, the problem Republicans have with their mania for investigations is that what's turned out to be scandalous wasn't high-ranking, and what was high-ranking wasn't scandalous. Fast & Furious was scandalous, but it was a local botch. The IRS was slightly scandalous, but never went beyond middle management. Planned Parenthood did nothing wrong at all. And Benghazi—well, that reached the very highest levels, but there's just no scandal to be uncovered. There may have been some bad security decisions, but the evidence of malfeasance by anyone in the Obama administration is all but nonexistent.

Anyway, it probably doesn't matter. All through the Clinton administration and now the Obama administration, Republicans have been fixated on uncovering the scandals they just know have to be out there. But the plain truth is that Obama has run perhaps the cleanest administration in modern history. It's actually sort of remarkable. There's plenty of stuff you can legitimately disagree about with him, but there's been virtually no scandal of the conventional sort.

Either way, though, Krauthammer is probably right. The latest obsession in the House is to impeach the head of the IRS. It's idiotic because he did nothing wrong, and it's doubly idiotic because it would never pass in the Senate. It devalues the whole notion of impeachment and makes Republicans look like crackpots.

Then again, PPP recently polled Republicans in North Carolina, and 66 percent supported the idea of impeaching Hillary Clinton "the day she takes office." This is the conservative movement people like Krauthammer have built. It can hardly come as a surprise to him that their primary mode of governance now consists mostly of an endless quest for malevolent phantoms that Krauthammer and his buddies have been assuring them all along are out there.

Republicans Very Upset At How Bad They Looked on Wednesday

| Fri Oct. 30, 2015 12:38 PM EDT

I guess this was inevitable:

The Republican National Committee has pulled out of a planned Feb. 26 debate with NBC News after widespread criticism of this week's CNBC debate from both the party and campaigns. "CNBC network is one of your media properties, and its handling of the debate was conducted in bad faith," RNC Chairman Reince Priebus wrote in a letter to NBC News Chairman Andrew Lack.

CNBC did screw up, but mostly by failing to keep the toddlers on stage under control and being poorly prepared to deal with brazen lies delivered with a straight face. For what it's worth, I'd also agree that a few of the questions they asked were stupid and/or churlish. Not much more than any other debate, though.

But conservative grievance culture is once again demanding someone's head on a platter. After all, if conservatives look bad on television it's gotta be someone else's fault, right? So it's off with NBC's head.

Jeebus. And these guys claim that they're the steely-eyed folks who can take down Putin and the ayatollah? What a bunch of crybabies.

Obamacare Performs Miracle Time Machine Destruction of Past Economy

| Fri Oct. 30, 2015 12:22 PM EDT

In Wednesday's debate, Carly Fiorina said this: "We have 400,000 small businesses forming every year in this country....The bad news is, we have 470,000 going out of business every year. And why? They cite Obamacare."

Later that night, I spent more time than I'm willing to admit trying to track down that number for business closures. Today, via Steve Benen and the Washington Post, I found it: it's from a 2014 Brookings study about business dynamism. Annotated chart below. So there we have it. Mystery solved. Small business closures have been rising steadily since Reagan was president, and in 2011 the number hit 470,000. And the reason they closed is because of Obamacare. Who would have guessed?

We Should Stop Helping the Silver Scammers

| Fri Oct. 30, 2015 11:10 AM EDT

We've all seen ads like this a million times, but for some reason this one finally caught my attention. It's the usual pitch: there's a limited supply of silver bars, and California residents can get them cheap if they act fast! "For the next 2 days residents who find their state listed on the Distribution List above in bold are getting individual State Silver Bars at just the state minimum of $57 set by the Federated Mint." And if you order ten bars, shipping and handling are free!

The current fixing for an ounce of silver is about $15. So if you pay $1,140 for $150 worth of silver, they'll throw in shipping gratis. What a deal.

Anyway, I know this is all legal because the fine print says yada yada yada, and there's no law that prevents selling goods for an astronomical price. But really: are we all so desperate for advertising dollars that we have to sell space to folks like this? I guess the answer is yes, but maybe that ought to change. We all know who gets taken in by these kinds of ads, and it doesn't speak well of any publication that continues to be complicit in this.

Are We Allowed to Say That Marco Rubio Is Lying About His Tax Plan?

| Fri Oct. 30, 2015 10:25 AM EDT

I've written a couple of posts about Marco Rubio's debate tiff with John Harwood, which revolves around the question of how the poor and the middle class fare under Rubio's tax plan. Harwood wanted to know why it was so much better for the rich than the middle class, and Rubio responded by saying his plan would help the very poor a lot.

In other words, Rubio declined to answer the question and instead answered a different one. But today Dylan Matthews digs into this a bit and concludes (surprise!) that Rubio's plan probably doesn't even help the poor all that much:

How is Rubio helping the poor so much? Well, Rubio's plan would replace the standard deduction and personal exemption with a $2,000 credit ($4,000 for couples)....But Rubio's proposal, as originally laid out, is not a plain old credit. It's a fully refundable credit. Think about that for a second. Rubio's original proposal would give any household in America $2,000 or $4,000, no questions asked. It was a basic income. It was a massive increase in the welfare state of a kind that no Democratic candidate, including Bernie Sanders, is proposing.

So it's perhaps no surprise that when I asked his team about this, they insisted that this was a mistake, and the credit was in fact much more limited. "Rules would be tailored to ensure that our reforms would not create payments for new, non-working filers," a Rubio aide told me in April.

It's unclear what exactly that means....Here's the problem, though: The Tax Foundation assumed that Rubio had proposed a basic income....Given that Rubio will not, in fact, create a massive new welfare program, this finding is pretty dubious.

How about that? Rubio misled the Tax Foundation into concluding that his plan would help the poor, and for some reason he's never gotten around to correcting the error. In fact, he's been aggressively touting the Tax Foundation analysis to "prove" that his plan helps the poor. He even accused John Harwood of misrepresenting his plan on national TV even though he knew perfectly well that he was the one misrepresenting his plan. If I were the Tax Foundation, I'd be pissed.

Still, I'm sure this was all an honest mistake on Rubio's part, and he'll rush to give the Tax Foundation updated information now that he realizes what he's done. Right? He's an honest young man, after all.


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A Brief Timeline of Ben Carson and Glyconutrients

| Fri Oct. 30, 2015 12:19 AM EDT

Courtesy of Gideon Resnick at the Daily Beast, here's a fascinating timeline of Ben Carson talking about his prostate cancer, which was diagnosed in mid-2002 and surgically removed in August 2002.

November 2002, on the 700 Club:

CARSON: What we eat, how we treat our bodies, what we do to strengthen or to weaken our immune systems. We need to pay a lot more attention to preventive medicine—not so much to radiating, poisoning and cutting.

TERRY MEEUWSEN: Has going through what you've just gone through and sensing the truth of what you just talked about, has that changed the way that you live?

CARSON: Oh absolutely. I have changed my diet significantly.

January 2003, in Ebony:

Carson believes there is cause for great concern. "There certainly seems to be some dietary connection to cancer rates....And clearly there are environmental issues. Pesticides, water contamination, the list goes on and on."...Carson changed his diet to include mostly organic fruits and vegetables.

2003 or early 2004: Carson is booked to speak at the annual sales conference of Mannatech Inc., a multilevel marketer of glyconutrient supplements.

February 2004, in the Dallas Weekly:

The father of one of Dr. Carson’s patients told him about a ten year-old company based in Coppell, Texas which had secured world-wide patent rights to a food supplement known as a glyconutrient....Dr. Carson then contacted Dr. Reg McDaniel, an authority in glyconutrients and medical director of Manna Relief Inc....“The science made sense to me,” Dr. Carson said. “God gave us (in plants) what we need to remain healthy,” he said. “In today’s world our food chain is depleted of nutrients and our environment has helped destroy what God gave us.”

March 2004, in Carson's keynote address for Mannatech Inc.:

One of the fathers of one of my patients asked me if I had ever heard anything about glyconutrients. And I said, well, I've certainly heard the term, but I didn't know anything specific about them. He gave me the website, and I subsequently contacted Dr. Reg [Reginald McDaniel, medical director of Mannatech], and we had quite a conversation about....possibilities. And he sent me some product and prescribed a regimen. And I started taking the product, and within about three weeks my symptoms went away.

August 2004, in a Mannatech press release

Mannatech, Incorporated (NASDAQ: MTEX) today announced record sales and net income for its second quarter ended June 30, 2004. For the three months ended June 30, 2004, net sales reached $74.3 million, which was an increase of 59.8% from $46.5 million for the same period in 2003 and net income increased by 376.1% to $5.6 million.

July 2007, in a Texas AG press release:

Texas Attorney General Greg Abbott today charged Coppell-based Mannatech, Inc., its owner, Samuel L. Caster, and several related entities with operating an illegal marketing scheme in violation of state law....Texans will not tolerate illegal marketing schemes that prey upon the sick and unsuspecting, Attorney General Abbott said.

....According to investigators, the defendants encourage product user testimonials that tout their supplements’ alleged healing effects. These exaggerated testimonials, along with misleading before and after photos, are displayed prominently in seminar booths, brochures, videos, sales associates’ personal Web sites and training materials. Together, these marketing techniques mislead consumers into believing that the supplements dramatically cure or treat serious illnesses.

....In fact, the company’s health claims are not supported by legitimate scientific studies, nor are its products approved as drugs by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration.

September 2007, Ronald Schnaar and Hudson Freeze publish A "Glyconutrient Sham" in the journal Glycobiology:

Faith leads many to Mannatech, and that faith, combined with desperation and lack of tools to judge the claims of the company and its associates, can be a powerful basis for glyconutrient sales....We feel that glycobiologists do have a responsibility to serve the public by speaking out against claims of glyconutrient therapeutic efficacy, often based on legitimate glycobiology discoveries, when there is a lack of credible clinical data to support such claims.

2011, Carson speaks again at Mannatech's annual sales conference, as recounted by the Wall Street Journal:

He got a round of applause by telling Mannatech associates that the company had donated funds to help him get a coveted endowed post at Johns Hopkins Medicine, according to a video of the event.

"Well three years ago I had an endowed chair bestowed upon me," Mr. Carson said in his "Keynote Address" at a 2011 Mannatech convention. "And uh, it requires $2.5 million to do an endowed chair and I’m proud to say that part of that $2.5 million came from Mannatech."

Despite the fact that this was a prepared address at a Mannatech conference, his campaign now says he "simply got things mixed up" and Mannatech never provided any funding for his endowed chair.

Fascinating, no? In 2002 and 2003 Carson talks repeatedly about diet and immune system issues, but for some reason fails to mention glyconutrients. Then he signs up to speak at Mannatech's 2004 sales conference. Almost immediately, he starts mentioning glyconutrients and claims he began taking them within weeks of his cancer diagnosis. Mannatech's sales soar after Carson's implicit endorsement. Three years later Mannatech is sued by the Texas attorney general for making unproven health claims, and scientists call Mannatech's work a "sham." Nevertheless, Carson continues his association with Mannatech: apparently accepting funding from them for an endowed chair; speaking at their sales conference in 2011 and 2013; appearing in promotional materials on their website; and appearing in a PBS special touting glyconutrients.

May 2015: Carson announces he will run for president.

October 2015:

In a Republican debate, Carson flatly says he has no association with the company:

"I didn't have an involvement with them. That is total propaganda, and this is what happens in our society. Total propaganda. I did a couple of speeches for them, I do speeches for other people. They were paid speeches. It is absolutely absurd to say that I had any kind of a relationship with them."

And that brings us up to date.

Senior Citizens Are Going to Hate Ted Cruz's Tax Plan

| Thu Oct. 29, 2015 5:53 PM EDT

Yesterday Sen. Ted Cruz introduced his tax plan. Let's let the Tax Foundation describe it:

This plan would institute a flat 10 percent tax rate on all varieties of individual income, with a large standard deduction and personal exemption....The plan would replace the corporate income tax and all payroll taxes with a broad-based “Business Transfer Tax,” or value-added tax (VAT), with few exemptions.

I just want to make a quick point about this: if it ever became a serious proposal, AARP would go ballistic. Wonks might support a switch from an income tax to a VAT, but old people decidedly don't. Here's why.

Businesses would pay Cruz's VAT and then pass along the cost to consumers. In practice, you can think of it like a sales tax. If it's been around forever, everything is fine. But if you replace existing income and payroll taxes with a VAT, the elderly get screwed.

Take a look at the table on the right. To make the arithmetic easy, my example assumes:

  • $100 in income.
  • A current combined federal income/payroll tax rate of 25 percent.
  • A Cruz income tax of 10 percent and a Cruz VAT of 15 percent.

In our current system, you pay 25 percent in federal taxes when you earn your money and sock away the rest in savings. When you retire you can withdraw the original sum without paying further taxes. Of your $100 in original earnings, you have $75 to spend.1

Now look at the last column. This is Cruz's system once it's fully established. You pay 10 percent in federal taxes when you earn your money, and when you retire you pay an extra 15 percent federal sales tax on everything you buy with your savings. The net result is the same: you effectively have $75 to spend.

But now take a look at the middle column. Suppose you're 65. You already paid 25 percent when you earned your money. You have only $75 to withdraw. But you also pay an extra 15 percent on everything you buy. You effectively have only $60 to spend.

This transition problem is well known. It seems a bit arcane, but believe me, AARP knows all about it—and there's no simple solution. If you transition a VAT slowly, it doesn't hurt too much. But Cruz doesn't say anything about that. He just wants to flip a switch. If he ever starts looking like a serious candidate, he's going to have some serious explaining to do to America's elderly.

1Don't worry about interest and inflation. They don't change the basic picture.

A Few Unanswered Questions From Last Night's Debate

| Thu Oct. 29, 2015 2:12 PM EDT

After reviewing the transcript of last night's debate I realized I had a few leftover questions. Nothing hard. Just some simple, easy-peasy stuff:

Carly Fiorina: You say you want to reduce the tax code to three pages using normal 11-point type. I'm tired of paying our CPA every year to prepare our tax returns, so this sounds terrific. It also sounds short enough that you can produce draft legislation for us pretty quickly. How hard can three pages be? When do we get to see it?

Mike Huckabee: You say we can save Medicare by focusing on cures for four big diseases that apparently we've been ignoring: cancer, Alzheimer's, diabetes, and heart disease. Since I happen to have bone cancer, this sounds like a great idea to me. In fact, I'd be OK with pauperizing the whole country in order to speed up cures for multiple myeloma. So what's the plan? I checked out your website, but the only mention of cancer I could find was a blog post comparing Iran to cancer. This makes me concerned about how serious you are. Do you have some ideas about research priorities? How much money will you spend on this? Inquiring minds want to know.

Donald Trump: Some of your luxury resorts have policies that ban guests from carrying guns. You said you'd change this, and since you're the boss I assume you can do it with the stroke of a pen. When are you going to do this?

Marco Rubio: You might have been confused about John Harwood's tax question last night. I think he agrees that your tax plan is generous to the very poor. But now that we have that straight, why does your plan increase middle-class income by only 15 percent compared to 28 percent for the top earners? As he said, that really does seem kind of backward for a guy who's so dedicated to average workers like your parents.

Ben Carson: Last night you said that our economy is doing poorly because it's "tethered down right now with so many regulations." But then you failed to make the obvious blimp joke. What's up with that?

Ted Cruz: Carl Quintanilla rudely refused to let you talk about the debt ceiling even though that was what he asked you about. But it sure seemed like you had something you wanted to get off your chest about that. So: what do you think about the debt ceiling? And one other thing: are you serious about returning to the gold standard? Really?

Let Us Now Shed a Tear For Marco Rubio's Brutal Treatment at the Hands of the Republican Establishment

| Thu Oct. 29, 2015 12:22 PM EDT

I got a fundraising email from Marco Rubio this morning:

Last night, in the latest Republican presidential debate, one of the moderators actually asked me if I should "slow down." That's exactly what the establishment has been telling me for years. That I should "wait my turn."

....P.S. I couldn't believe it when one of the moderators misled about my tax plan — despite having to correct a story earlier this month where he made the exact same claim!

Poor Marco. Speaker of the Florida House at age 35. US Senator at age 39. Lionized presidential candidate at age 44. He's really had a rough time with the GOP establishment.

Oh, and John Harwood was precisely correct in his debate question about Rubio's tax plan. He didn't mislead anyone. It's true that a couple of weeks ago Harwood corrected a tweet about Rubio's tax plan, but he didn't repeat that mistake last night. His characterization of the Tax Foundation's analysis of Rubio's plan was 100 percent accurate. It's Rubio who seemed either confused or deliberately deceptive about the whole thing.