Kevin Drum

Everyone Hated Sequestration, But Its Effect Was Never All That Huge

| Wed Oct. 28, 2015 2:23 PM EDT

Kevin Williamson doesn't like the new budget deal. That's no surprise: the reason Boehner is trying to pass this while he's a lame duck is that he knows no one will like it. But that doesn't matter to him anymore, so he's willing to shrug and just get it done.

So what is Williamson's specific gripe? That the deal basically does away with sequestration:

Democrats hated sequestration. Republicans hated sequestration.


Sequestration worked.

Sequestration is the reason why in recent years we’ve reduced federal spending substantially in GDP terms, from about 25 percent to about 20 percent. It is the main reason that we have reduced the federal deficit in GDP terms. Democrat-supporting welfare entrepreneurs hated it, and Republican-supporting military contractors hated it. Ordinary Americans did not have much in the way of strong views on the matter, which often is the case when a policy actually does what it is supposed to. Effective government rarely is dramatic government.

No argument with the first sentence. Sequestration was specifically designed to be so unlikable that neither party would ever support it. The fact that it took effect anyway is a testament to the dysfunction of the federal government, not to the budget-capping wonders of sequestration.

But let's review that last paragraph. Is sequestration really the "main" reason we've reduced federal spending from 25 percent of GDP to 20 percent? Hmmm:

  • Spending hit 24.4 percent of GDP during the recession year of 2009. It was already down to 21.9 percent of GDP by 2012 and hit 21 percent in 2015.
  • Sequestration started in 2013, so at most it could be responsible for 0.9 out of 3.4 points of that reduced spending.
  • Was it? It theoretically reduced spending by $200 billion or so.
  • That's about 1 percent of GDP.
  • In reality, CBO estimates that adjustments—primarily to fund overseas wars—ate into half of that. This means that sequestration lowered actual spending by about 0.5 percent of GDP.
  • The rest of the decline from 21.9 percent to 21 percent comes from the fact that GDP recovered.
  • So: of the spending reduction Williamson cites, about 0.5 percentage points was due to sequestration.

Now, I suppose that any kind of spending cut is a good cut to a conservative. But sequestration is responsible for only about a seventh of the spending reduction since 2009. The rest is due to (a) the end of stimulus spending, (b) reduced safety net spending as the recession eased, (c) the 2011 budget deal, and (d) the recovery of GDP growth, which automatically reduces spending as a percent of GDP.

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Ben Carson's Babysitter Attacks Press for Allowing Ben Carson on TV

| Wed Oct. 28, 2015 11:42 AM EDT

Steve Benen points me to Jake Tapper, who interviewed Ben Carson recently about his opposition to "wealth redistribution":

TAPPER: I want to ask you about comments you made year to Politico about education funding, in which you said—quote—"Wouldn't it make more sense to put the money in a pot and redistribute it throughout the country so that public schools are equal, whether you're in a poor area or a wealthy area?"

CARSON: Well, that's a different concept altogether…

TAPPER: But isn't it redistribution of wealth? It's redistribution of education wealth, but it's redistribution, right?

…CARSON: I think that's very different than a situation where someone is working hard, is making, you know, a lot of money, is providing a lot of jobs and is contributing to the fabric of America and then us going along and saying, well, he's got too much. And this guy over here, he has too little, so let's just take this one and give it to that one. That's much more arbitrary.

TAPPER: Well, you're talking about doing it on an individual level. But when it's school districts, if it's funded from local taxes, so isn't it the same principle at stake?

CARSON: No, it's not the same principle at stake because we are talking about the entire nation and we're talking about what makes us competitive in the world, and the great divide between the haves and the have-nots is education. That's very different than redistributing funding because you feel that that's the social thing to do.

After a while you start to run out of things to say about this. We've already been through this dance once before, posting all the idiotic things Donald Trump said and then shaking our virtual heads over them. That finally got boring, so now it's Ben Carson's turn. But it's weirdly different. Trump used bluster to hide his ignorance, but at least that suggests he knew he was ignorant. Carson doesn't even seem to know. He tosses out his flaky ideas and then earnestly defends them. In this interview, he didn't take the easy route of saying he'd misspoken, or was taken out of context, or has since changed his mind. He just went ahead and defended himself. Massive redistribution in education funding isn't real redistribution that's done because "you feel that's the social thing to do."

In other words, it's okay if your motives are pure. I guess. Anyway, one of Carson's minders quickly covered for his boss, saying "Dr. Carson [does not] support the national pooling of property tax receipts. That is a falsehood." So I guess we're redefining "falsehood" too. Now it means something Carson actually said that turns out to be sort of inconvenient.

I can only assume Carson is a smart man. How can a smart man who's running for president know less about policy than the average Joe in a construction yard? It is a mystery.

Kansas Is Still the Land of Make-Believe

| Wed Oct. 28, 2015 11:04 AM EDT

Kansas governor Sam Brownback has been leading an epic battle to turn his state into a supply-side nirvana. So how's it going? A new poll—possibly the greatest poll in American history—suggests that Kansans are a wee bit confused:

When it comes to Brownback’s tax policy, which has featured heavy cuts in income taxes and taxes on businesses, three-fifths (61 percent) of respondents felt the policy had been “a failure” or “a tremendous failure” in terms of economic growth. About one-third of respondents said it was “neither a success nor failure” and 7 percent said they felt it was at least “a success.” Only 0.2 percent agreed it was “a tremendous success.”

But at the same time, 61 percent of respondents favor “somewhat lower” or “much lower” taxes and spending in Kansas. And yet...about 63 percent of respondents felt taxes on top income earners should be increased while 6 percent felt they should be decreased.

What does this mean? That tax cuts have been a failure, but maybe they'll work if we just cut them more? That tax cuts have been a failure, but Kansans just want low taxes anyway? That Kansans don't really care if their economy is any good?

I do not know.

Stop Blaming Suburbia for Killing Off Friendships

| Wed Oct. 28, 2015 10:32 AM EDT

Dave Roberts is unhappy with the fact that we struggle to make new friends after college:

I read a study many years ago that I have thought about many times since, though hours of effort have failed to track it down. The gist was this: The key ingredient for the formation of friendships is repeated spontaneous contact. That's why we make friends in college: because we are, by virtue of where we live and our daily activities, forced into regular contact with the same people. It is the natural soil out of which friendship grows.

....But when we marry and start a family, we are pushed, by custom, policy, and expectation, to move into our own houses. And when we have kids, we find ourselves tied to those houses. Many if not most neighborhoods these days are not safe for unsupervised kid frolicking. In lower-income areas there are no sidewalks; in higher-income areas there are wide streets abutted by large garages. In both cases, the neighborhoods are made for cars, not kids. So kids stay inside playing Xbox, and families don't leave except to drive somewhere.

This is a common critique, but I don't think it holds water. For starters, read The Organization Man. As William Whyte reports, spontaneous new friendships were quite common in 1950s suburbia—which was architecturally quite similar to today's suburbia. This was certainly true of my stucco tract house neighborhood when I was growing up. Second, New Urbanists have been trying for a long time to create communities that encourage spontaneous friendships, and they routinely fail. Build houses with stoops, and everyone stays inside anyway.

Or take my current suburban neighborhood. It's pretty typical. Everyone is friendly, and we know our near neighbors. Some close friendships have developed, but that's about it. Across the street there's a nearly identical neighborhood, but this one is far more close-knit, throwing Halloween parties and July 4th bashes and just generally socializing in a way that mine doesn't. Why?

I'm not entirely convinced that the nature of friendships has actually changed all that much during the past few centuries of civilization. Some people are sociable and some aren't. But if I'm wrong, I still don't think it's primarily because of changes in the built environment. Maybe it's due to the fact that women don't routinely stay home during the day and socialize with neighbors. Maybe it's because of air conditioning and TV. Maybe we all figured out that picking friends by random location (i.e., living next door) didn't make much sense once we had other options. Or maybe it's just that smart verbal types tend to be a little introverted, and we hear from them more often than anyone else.

And stop blaming graduation from college! Half the country never went to college, but I'll bet they have as many (or more) friends than the rest of us. How do they manage that if they skipped college and live in the same kinds of places as us overeducated types?

Anyway, consider this is a challenge. Do modern Americans really have fewer close friends than in the past? Establish that before you go any further. If it turns out to be true, why? I don't think the evidence really supports the idea that it's mostly due to the nature of suburban living. (Do apartment dwellers have more friends than homeowners?) This becomes a much more interesting question when we get over our obsession with the evils of suburbia.

Reading and Math Scores Changed Barely At All This Year

| Wed Oct. 28, 2015 12:15 AM EDT

New NAEP test scores are out for grades 4 and 8. Because the NAEP is such a trusted low-stakes test, you're going to hear a lot about what these new scores "mean." Maybe even from me! But here's the one thing you need to know before you read anyone telling you that these scores prove that standardized tests are good (or bad) or that Arne Duncan is an idiot (or a hero) or that teachers unions are a mess (or a godsend): the change in test scores was tiny.

Over the long term, NAEP scores in both math and reading have increased steadily and substantially. However, they've always bounced around by a few points both up and down in every cycle. This isn't to say that the 2015 scores are meaningless, but you should pay no attention to any sensational declarations from any side in the ed wars. This year's scores are a downward blip, something we've seen before. It will be many years before we know for sure if they're anything more than that.

A Quick Guide to Interpreting Everything You Hear About Obamacare Rate Increases

| Tue Oct. 27, 2015 5:30 PM EDT

How much are health care premiums on the Obamacare exchanges set to rise in 2016? That depends. Here are a few possible answers:

  • If everyone keeps the coverage they currently have, Charles Gaba estimates that the weighted average increase—that is, weighting states with bigger populations more heavily—will be about 12-13 percent.
  • If everyone shops around and chooses the second-lowest price silver plan, the federal government estimates that the weighted average on federal exchanges will go up 7.5 percent.
  • It depends on the state. If you live in California, you can figure on about a 4 percent increase. Texas? 5.1 percent. Oklahoma? 35.7 percent.
  • If you live in a big city and you shop around, Kaiser estimates that the weighted average will go down 0.7 percent if you account for the average size of the federal subsidy. In some cities, the decrease is even larger.

In other words, depending on how scary you feel like being, you can accurately cite the increase as 35.7 percent, 12-13 percent, 7.5 percent, or negative 0.7 percent. For example:

  • Obama: "In my hometown of Chicago, rates are going down by 5 percent."
  • Democratic think tank: "If you shop around for the best rate, HHS estimates an average increase of 7.5 percent on the federal exchanges."
  • Republican think tank: "Liberal analyst Charles Gaba estimates an average increase of 13 percent, with 18 states seeing increases of 20 percent or more."
  • Trump: "Some people tell me their rates are going up by 25, even 35 percent!"

Every one of these is an accurate citation. So which one is the fairest? I'd say (a) you should count the tax credit since that affects what people actually pay, (b) some people will shop around and some won't, and (c) you should usually cite a broad national estimate, not a state or local number.1 With all that taken into account, my prediction is that the average person using Obamacare will see an increase of about 6-7 percent.

1Obviously there are exceptions to all of these. If the Los Angeles Times wants to report on average increases in Los Angeles, then it should use the Los Angeles number. If you're reporting on how well insurance companies are doing at estimating the premiums they need to charge, you should use raw numbers that don't count the tax credit. Etc.

But if you do a telephone survey of Obamacare users next year and simply ask them, "How much more are you paying for health insurance than last year," I think we're going to end up around 6-7 percent.

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President Obama Stares Down the Chinese

| Tue Oct. 27, 2015 12:36 PM EDT

President Obama recently decided to send the guided-missile destroyer USS Lassen to one of those little islands China is building in the South China Sea, and which China claims as part of its territorial waters. So how did the Chinese react?

The decision...angered China, which said last month it would “never allow any country” to violate what it considers to be its territorial waters and airspace around the islands. The U.S. vessel entered Chinese waters “illegally and without the Chinese government’s permission,” Foreign Ministry spokesman Lu Kang said in a statement, adding that Chinese authorities had monitored and warned it as it passed.

“The action by the U.S. warship has threatened China’s sovereignty and security interests, endangered the safety of personnel and facilities on the islands and damaged regional peace and stability,” he said, urging the United States to “correct its wrongdoing immediately” and not take further “dangerous and provocative actions.” Hours later, China’s vice foreign minister, Zhang Yesui, summoned U.S. Ambassador Max Baucus to deliver a formal protest.

Oooh. After saying they would "never allow" such a thing, the Chinese....issued a statement and then called in our ambassador to protest. Scary.

Seriously, though: can you imagine the ballistic outrage if Obama had reacted like this to a Chinese sail-by? Republicans would practically be ready to start impeachment hearings. It would be yet another sign of the weakened world standing of the United States under Democratic leadership.

But when it's the other way around, is it a sign of plummeting Chinese leadership? Or Obama's steely-eyed projection of American power? Judging by the non-reaction, I guess not. Go figure.

Can a Bit of Kabuki Theater Save the Republican Party?

| Tue Oct. 27, 2015 12:05 PM EDT

The Republican kabuki going on right now is a marvel of the age. Apparently pretty much everyone in Washington, DC—Democrats, Republicans, tea partiers, House Freedom lunatics—has agreed to keep mum about John Boehner's lipstick-on-a-pig budget deal with the president. Everyone, that is, except the presumptive new speaker, Paul Ryan:

"I think the process stinks," said Ryan, who is expected to be elected speaker on Thursday. The Wisconsin Republican added that he hadn't gone through the details of the agreement, which was released Monday night.

"This is not the way to do the people's business," Ryan said. "And under new management we are not going to do the people's business this way. We are up against a deadline—that's unfortunate. But going forward we can't do the people's business. As a conference we should've been meeting months ago to discuss these things to have a unified strategy going forward."

This is so staged it makes Dame Edna look serious. Ryan has basically been given permission to blast the deal in order to verify his conservative bona fides, and everyone else understands this is just an act. Even the ultras have apparently made the following, fairly obvious calculation:

So the deal was struck. Everyone eats the shit sandwich. Paul Ryan pretends to oppose it. A battered, bruised, but slightly less slapstick Republican Party moves forward.

In Politics, Hate > Love

| Tue Oct. 27, 2015 10:50 AM EDT

Ezra Klein explains the power of the dark side today:

Abramowitz and Webster test a host of political characteristics to see what best predicts party loyalty. The real key, they found, was fear of the other party: "Regardless of the strength of their attachment to their own party, the more voters dislike the opposing party, the greater the probability that they will vote consistently for their own party’s candidates."

It's worth saying that a bit more clearly: you're more likely to vote Democratic if you hate Republicans than if you love Democrats, and vice versa. What parties need to do to keep you loyal isn't make you inspired. Rather, they need to make you scared.

Or, if Robert Heinlein is more to your taste than George Lucas: "If you are part of a society that votes, then do so. There may be no candidates and no measures you want to vote for, but there are certain to be ones you want to vote against." That's certainly true of me. Over my lifetime, the Republican Party has done far more to repulse me than the Democratic Party has done to appeal to me. But the result in the voting booth would be about the same either way.

Anyway, I don't think this comes as much of a surprise to anyone. However, the chart below is interesting because it shows the proximate cause of all this polarization: Ronald Reagan and George Bush. Other presidents have little effect one way or another. This suggests either (a) Reagan and Bush were far more radical than other presidents, (b) Republican voters already hated Democrats so much that Clinton and Obama didn't really have much impact, or (c) Democrats are awfully sensitive to losing power for a few years. I report, you decide.

UPDATE: Hmmm. I guess I should have gotten out a straightedge instead of relying on my tired old eyes. That first spike actually starts during Jimmy Carter's term. So....apparently the Republican base got radicalized first, and Democrats picked up the ball later. Or something. I've corrected the chart.

Boehner, Obama Show What a Couple of Lame Ducks Can Accomplish

| Tue Oct. 27, 2015 9:58 AM EDT

Apparently John Boehner has done his bit to clean the ol' congressional barn before decamping Capitol Hill for West Chester Township and a golf-filled retirement. (Or a condo near K Street. No telling which, really.) He's reached a budget deal with the president that increases social spending and saves the Social Security disability fund (yay Democrats!), and increases defense spending, tightens penalties for defrauding the disability program, and cuts payments to Medicare providers (yay Republicans!). Everyone gets a break from government shutdowns and debt ceiling threats (yay ordinary citizens!).

But what about those entitlement cuts? Should liberals be worried? Greg Sargent reports that we shouldn't be:

On Medicare and Social Security: Nancy Altman, the president of Social Security Works, a group that strenuously opposes benefits cuts and argues for their expansion, tells me that the deal “doesn’t actually cut benefits or really hurt beneficiaries who aren’t gaming the system.”

Altman says the Medicare cuts are all on the provider side, which could harm beneficiaries at some point, but it’s not a major concern. “On the Medicare side, they limited their cuts to far in the future, and to providers,” Altman says. “There’s time to correct that.”

On the change to Social Security, Altman says: “They stiffened the penalties for fraud, they extended nationwide efforts to make sure that payments are accurate and they closed a loophole in which people were gaming the system. They didn’t change eligibility requirements or reduce the level of benefits.”

So I guess that's not bad. The defense side of the budget actually ended up getting a bigger increase than the non-defense side, but I suppose we can all live with that. Gotta kill us some Taliban terrorists, after all. And ISIS terrorists. And Assad terrorists.

So now we can all get back to the business of the day: reporting on whatever loony thing Ben Carson or Donald Trump said. I think they're arguing right now about whether Ben Carson wants to abolish Medicare and turn old people into soylent green. Or something. I might have that wrong. I'll check into it later.