Kevin Drum

Why Is Paul Ryan Attacking Poverty Programs? He Needs to Tell Us Loud and Clear.

| Wed Mar. 5, 2014 10:39 AM PST

Paul Ryan released a thick report on federal poverty programs earlier this week, and liberals were none too pleased with it. Over at CBPP, Sharon Parrott explains why: "It’s replete with misleading and selective presentations of data and research, which it uses to portray the safety net in a negative light.  It also omits key research and data that point in more positive directions." In fact, it's so bad that quite a few of the researchers who are name checked in Ryan's report have spoken out publicly to complain about how badly their work was misrepresented.

But we should rein in the criticism a bit, says the Economist's John Prideaux. He believes that Ryan's report really is useful and really could represent a change of direction for conservatives:

In fact there is not a single proposal to cut spending on federal anti-poverty programmes in there. What the report does do is document how fragmented the federal government’s poverty programmes are....Take the federal schemes to expand the supply of housing for people with low incomes. There is Public Housing, Moving to Work, Hope VI, Choice Neighborhoods, Rental Assistance Demonstration, Rental Housing Assistance, Rental Assistance Payment, the Housing Trust Fund, the Low Income Housing Tax Credit, the Private Activity Bond Interest Exclusion, the HOME Investment Partnerships Program and the Self-Help Homeownership Opportunity Program. The programmes on the demand side, in other words that help people pay their rent, are almost as numerous.

....Most of the commentary on the budget committee’s report suggests that it is filled with the same stuff that Republicans have been peddling for ages. And to be sure it includes plenty of studies that are critical of food stamps, Head Start and Pell grants. But read the whole thing and you get the impression that there are House Republicans who understand that there is more to poverty reduction than getting the government out of the way. They should be braver about saying this.

I think this gets to the heart of the matter. Even conservatives—the more honest variety, anyway—will concede that liberals have plenty of reasons to be skeptical of Ryan's goals. His annual budget roadmaps have consistently relied on slashing spending for the poor, and Republicans in general have been consumed with cutting safety net spending for decades. It's perfectly natural to view a report that lambastes federal poverty programs as merely the first step in an effort to build support for cutting spending on those programs.

So how about if we see some of Prideaux's bravery before we bite on Ryan's proposals? Liberals should certainly be open to making safety net programs more efficient, and if that's Ryan's goal he'll find plenty of Democrats willing to work with him. But that all depends on knowing that this isn't just a Trojan Horse for deep cuts to spending on the poor.

So how about if we hear this from Ryan? How about if he says, plainly and clearly, that he wants to improve the efficiency of safety net programs, but wants to use the savings to help more people—or to help people in smarter ways—not as an excuse to slash spending or to fund more tax cuts for the wealthy? Really, that's the bare minimum necessary for liberals to suspend their skepticism, given Ryan's long history of trying to balance the budget on the backs of the poor.

This would require a genuine turnabout from Ryan, and it would require him to genuinely confront his tea party base with things they don't want to hear. And it would demonstrate that helping the poor really is his goal. But if he's not willing to do that, why should anyone on the left believe this report is anything other than the same old attack on the poor as moochers and idlers that's become practically a Republican mantra over the past few years?

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Italian Magazine Giant Steals My Pope Idea

| Wed Mar. 5, 2014 9:24 AM PST

The New York Times reports today on a new magazine about Pope Francis:

The 68-page Il Mio Papa (My Pope) will hit Italian newsstands on Ash Wednesday, offering a glossy medley of papal pronouncements and photographs, along with peeks into his personal life. Each weekly issue will also include a pullout centerfold of the pope, accompanied by a quote.

“It’s a sort of fanzine, but of course it can’t be like something you’d do for One Direction,” the popular boy band, said the magazine’s editor, Aldo Vitali. “We aim to be more respectful, more noble.”

Uh huh. Look, can I call it, or can I call it? Below left is my cover mockup cover from a year ago. On the right is the real thing. I demand royalties.

The Global Economy Is Not Looking Too Great Right Now

| Wed Mar. 5, 2014 8:58 AM PST

I post here periodically about declining European inflation and rising European unemployment, and today Paul Krugman draws our attention to an IMF blog post about the threat of actual deflation in Europe. The bottom line is that there's no actual deflation—yet—in most of Europe, but there is in three countries, and there's persistently low inflation across the continent:

  • Although inflation—headline and core—has fallen and stayed well below the ECB’s 2% price stability mandate, so far there is no sign of classic deflation, i.e., of widespread, self-feeding, price declines.
  • But even ultra low inflation—let us call it “lowflation”—can be problematic for the euro area as a whole and for financially stressed countries, where it implies higher real debt stocks and real interest rates, less relative price adjustment, and greater unemployment.
  • Along with Japan’s experience, which saw deflation worm itself into the system, this argues for a more pre-emptive approach by the ECB.

The chart on the right illustrates one of the big problems with "lowflation," even if it doesn't turn into outright deflation: the countries with the lowest inflation are also the ones with the highest debt levels and the biggest growth problems. They need to reduce wages relative to other countries, but with low inflation that's very hard to do. It requires actual pay cuts, something that's historically difficult, rather than simply freezing wages and allowing them to erode via inflation. As a result, it's hard for their economies to recover, and that in turn makes it all but impossible to fix their debt problem. It's a vicious spiral.

Krugman warns that without more aggressive policy from the European Central Bank, the EU risks following Japan into economic stagnation: "When people warn about Europe’s potential Japanification, they’re way behind the curve. Europe is already experiencing all the woes one associates with deflation, even though it’s only low inflation so far; and the human and social costs are, of course, far worse than Japan ever experienced."

In related news, I'll also draw your attention to China's latest woes: "China's leaders kept the growth target for their giant economy unchanged but signaled that they are more concerned than ever about reaching it, giving themselves the option of letting credit flow freely to keep from falling short." In the long run, China's slowdown was inevitable as wages rose and demographic realities intruded. But it's bad news in the short term. With the economy still flat in the US; European recovery threatened by debt and deflation; Chinese growth getting harder to come by; and the developing world seemingly running out of steam—with all that happening at once, there aren't very many bright spots in the global economic picture. At best, it looks like we have fairly gray times ahead of us. At worst—well, it might be worse.

It's Time For Republicans to Start Hating the EITC Again

| Tue Mar. 4, 2014 7:59 PM PST

Whenever Democrats start talking about raising the minimum wage, Republicans respond that this is a dumb way to help the working poor. Instead, we should raise the Earned Income Tax Credit. That's way more economically efficient.

Maybe so. But this is just a smokescreen. Republicans turned against the EITC long ago, and their occasional recollections that the sainted Ronald Reagan supported it are as fragile as a whiff of smoke in a sea breeze. Jon Chait explains why:

First, there is a perennial pattern in which any time Democrats propose a higher minimum wage, Republicans re-discover the virtues of the EITC as a foil. Second, there is the current political moment of Republican economic reform, in which Republicans are now crafting campaign messages for 2016 designed to avoid the plutocratic trap that snared Mitt Romney.

....The EITC plays the role here of a protective shield against populist attacks....The ultimate trouble is that the EITC costs money. And when you get into the gritty reality, Republicans are not willing to devote resources to it. Republicans would never agree to expand the EITC by simply adding the cost to the budget deficit....Obama proposes in his budget to offset the cost by closing tax deductions for the rich, but obviously Republicans would never agree to that, either.

Yep. This is one of the reasons1 I support an increase in the minimum wage: Republicans may oppose it, but they oppose the EITC even more. That's because corporations absorb the cost of the minimum wage while the EITC is funded by taxes—and Republicans will never, ever, ever agree to raise taxes in order to fund an EITC increase. Combine this with the fact that the public is strongly in favor of raising the minimum wage but probably thinks the EITC is a communicable disease or something, and this means that even though the odds of getting Republicans to vote for a minimum wage increase are slim, they're still better than the odds of getting them to vote for an EITC increase. The fact that the EITC is theoretically more conservative really doesn't matter.

Perhaps this seems cynical. So be it. I assure you it will all become pellucidly clear now that President Obama has released his 2015 budget, which officially includes a proposed EITC increase. Yesterday conservatives may have thought the EITC was great. Tomorrow they will not give it so much as the time of day.

1There are other reasons, too, mainly that I think the minimum wage acts as a pretty good complement to the EITC. They work better together than either one does by itself.

Quote of the Day: Lindsey Graham Goes Too Far Even for the Wingnuts

| Tue Mar. 4, 2014 4:45 PM PST

From Dan Drezner, responding to Sen. Lindsey Graham's morning tweet about Ukraine: "It started with Benghazi. When you kill Americans and nobody pays a price, you invite this type of aggression."

#headdesk #headdesk #headdesk #headdesk #headdesk #headdesk #headdesk #headdesk #headdesk

Seems about right.

What's remarkable is that Graham's tweet has even sparked some criticism from the right. The only problem is that I can't figure out exactly what their beef is. Michelle Malkin, whose picture is used to illustrate the phrase "over the top" in the dictionary, says that Graham is "an embarrassment to all who truly care about Benghazi. Just stop." But I can't quite parse that. Obviously Graham cares about Benghazi. Nobody has been more rabid on the subject than he has. And conservatives certainly believe that Obama's weak-kneed response in Benghazi was just another in a long line of weak-kneed responses to other global strongmen.1 So what's wrong with Graham connecting the dots to Putin?

Everything, obviously. But what I mean is, what's wrong from the perspective of a Benghazi cultist? I don't get it.

1They also believe a lot of other stuff about Obama's handling of Benghazi, far too much to summarize here. But weak-kneed is certainly part of the critique.

Immigration Reform Is Dead Because of Bizarro Obama

| Tue Mar. 4, 2014 12:04 PM PST

John Boehner says he really, truly wants to pass an immigration reform bill, but he can only do it if President Obama gives him more help. Steve Benen isn't buying it:

To a very real extent, Obama has already done what he’s supposed to do: he’s helped create an environment conducive to success. The president and his team have cultivated public demand for immigration reform and helped assemble a broad coalition – business leaders, labor, immigrant advocates, the faith community — to work towards a common goal.

But that’s apparently not what Boehner is talking about. Rather, according to the Speaker, immigration reform can’t pass because House Republicans don’t trust the president to faithfully execute the laws of the United States.

What’s Obama supposed to do about this? “I told the president I’ll leave that to him,” Boehner told the Enquirer.

I think that translates as "nothing is going to happen." Boehner's excuse, however, isn't that tea party Republicans are obsessed about amnesty and fences and reconquista and all that. His excuse is that Obama has been so brazenly lawless that Republicans simply can't trust him to enforce whatever law they pass. This is all part of the surreal "Obama the tyrant" schtick that's swamped the Republican Party lately. Every executive order, every new agency interpretation of a rule, every Justice Department or IRS memo—they're all evidence that Obama is turning America into a New World gulag. Never mind that these are all routine things that every president engages in. Never mind that they just as routinely get resolved in court and Obama will win some and lose some. Never mind any of that. Obama is an Alinskyite despot who is slowly but steadily sweeping away the last vestiges of democracy in this once great nation.

Barack Obama! A president whose biggest problem is probably just the opposite: he's never managed to get comfortable throwing his weight around to get what he wants. He's too dedicated to rational discourse and the grand bargain. He hires guys who want to nudge, not mandate. He wants to persuade, not coerce. That's our modern-day Robespierre.

Strange times, no?

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Chart of the Day: Why US Economic Sanctions on Russia Won't Have Much Impact

| Tue Mar. 4, 2014 10:48 AM PST

My view of economic sanctions has been strongly influenced by Dan Drezner, who tells us (if I can oversimplify for the sake of a blog post) that they basically don't work. That's not an ironclad rule, and there are certain situations where they tend to have some effect. However, one of the primary conditions for success is that the sanctions be broadly applied. If it's just one country, they almost never work. The target of the sanctions will simply bear the loss and increase its trade with other partners.

This is especially apropos to our current situation with Russia. Our ability to impose sanctions is limited to begin with thanks to our obligations under the WTO. But that hardly even matters. What really matters is that our trade with Russia is minuscule. Cutting off a piece of our trade would hardly impact them at all. Most of Russia's trade is with Europe and Asia, so no sanctions regime has even a chance of working unless they agree to join in. So far they haven't, and for the obvious reason: they have a lot of trade with Russia. Sanctions would hurt them as much as it would hurt Putin.

The chart below, via Danny Vinik, tells the tale. We simply don't have much trade leverage with Russia. (The export chart looks pretty much the same.) Until Drezner weighs in on this to tell me different, I'd say this is the definitive answer to the question of whether economic sanctions are likely to have any effect on Russia's conduct.

Please Don't Confuse Me With Facts, Vaccine Edition

| Tue Mar. 4, 2014 9:56 AM PST

A couple of days ago I watched Othello for the first time.1 By chance, I had never seen or read it before. But good ol' Shakespeare sure had us humans figured out, didn't he? Here is Emilia, responding to Desdemona's plea that she had never given Othello cause to doubt her fidelity:

But jealous souls will not be answer'd so;
They are not ever jealous for the cause,
But jealous for they are jealous: 'tis a monster
Begot upon itself, born on itself.

Why do I mention this? Because of Aaron Carroll's tidy little summary of some Brendan Nyhan research on how to persuade people that the MMR vaccine is safe:

When they gave evidence that vaccines aren’t linked to autism, that actually made parents who were already skittish about vaccines less likely to get their child one in the future. When they showed images of sick children to parents it increased their belief that vaccines caused autism. When they told a dramatic story about an infant in danger because he wasn’t immunized, it increased parents’ beliefs that vaccines had serious side effects.

Basically, it was all depressing. Nothing was effective.

So that's that. They believe not for cause, but believe just to believe. 'Tis a monster begot on itself, born on itself. Of course, it's possible that Nyhan simply didn't find the right intervention. Or that an intervention from a researcher has no effect, but the same intervention from a family doctor might. Still, Carroll is right: it's all kind of discouraging. It's nothing new, but still discouraging.

1It was the 1965 movie version with Laurence Olivier in blackface. Kind of disconcerting. But Frank Finlay was great as Iago.

UPDATE: More here from Dan Kahan, including a reminder that (a) vaccination rates in the US actually haven't declined over the past decade and (b) freaking out about a nonexistent problem is genuinely unhelpful. Also this:

The NR et al. study is superbly well done and very important. But the lesson it teaches is not that it is “futile” to try to communicate with concerned parents. It’s that it is a bad idea to flood public discourse in a blunderbuss fashion with communications that state or imply that there is a “growing crisis of confidence” in vaccines that is “eroding” immunization rates.

It’s a good idea instead to use valid empirical means to formulate targeted and effective vaccine-safety communication strategies.

Much more at the link.

Putin Lets It All Hang Out at Press Conference

| Tue Mar. 4, 2014 9:06 AM PST

Julia Ioffe says Angela Merkel was right: Vladimir Putin has lost his marbles. Here is her reaction to his televised press conference earlier today:

Slouching in a fancy chair in front of a dozen reporters, Putin squirmed and rambled. And rambled and rambled. He was a rainbow of emotion: serious! angry! bemused! flustered! confused! So confused. Victor Yanukovich is still the acting president of Ukraine, but he can't talk to Ukraine because Ukraine has no president. Ukraine needs elections, but you can't have elections because there is already a president. And no elections will be valid given that there is terrorism in the streets of Ukraine. And how are you going to let just anyone run for president? What if some nationalist punk just pops out like a jack-in-the-box? An anti-Semite?

....The American political technologists they did their work well. And this isn't the first time they've done this in Ukraine, no. Sometimes, I get the feeling that these people...these people in America. They are sitting there, in their laboratory, and doing experiments, like on rats. You're not listening to me. I've already said, that yesterday, I met with three colleagues. Colleagues, you're not listening. It's not that Yanukovich said he's not going to sign the agreement with Europe. What he said was that, based on the content of the agreement, having examined it, he did not like it. We have problems. We have a lot of problems in Russia. But they're not as bad as in Ukraine. The Secretary of State. Well. The Secretary of State is not the ultimate authority, is he?

And so on, for about an hour. And much of that, by the way, is direct quotes.

Other sources aren't quite as scornful as Ioffe, but they're close. The Guardian described Putin's remarks as "impromptu and occasionally rambling." The New York Times said he was "clearly furious." Adam Taylor of the Washington Post called it "a series of half-truths, circular reasoning, and bravado."

In any case, the main actual news of the press conference is that Putin said he saw no need to send forces into eastern Ukraine "yet," but reserves the right to do so in the future. So that's the latest.

Obama's Response to Russia Begins to Unfold

| Mon Mar. 3, 2014 10:51 PM PST

As near as I can tell, every single Ukraine hawk agrees that we shouldn't even think about a direct military response to Putin's incursion into Crimea. Every single one. Instead they want a diplomatic response: economic sanctions, aid to Ukraine, asset freezes, visa restr—

Oh wait. What's this?

The United States prepared Monday to impose sanctions on high-level Russian officials involved in the military occupation of Crimea, as the escalating crisis in Ukraine prompted turmoil in global markets, pounding the Russian ruble and driving up energy prices....If Moscow does not reverse course, officials said they would ban visas and freeze assets of select Russian officials in the chain of command as well as target state-run financial institutions.

Hey, it looks like the weakling-in-chief is doing exactly what the hawks have been clamoring for him to do. But how about those economic sanctions?

U.S. sanctions would mean little to Moscow as U.S. trade accounts for less than 2% of the Russian economy. “Our levers of influence here are particularly limited here,” says a House Democratic aide. “The administration is working on lining up support in Europe. But that’s the big question: how proactive, how robust are they willing to be.”

And, um, how do the Europeans feel about this?

German officials emphasized the need for diplomacy, while Dutch diplomats ruled out sanctions for now. A British document photographed by a journalist said the government of Prime Minister David Cameron would not support trade sanctions or block Russian money from the British market....“It’s particularly important for the United States to bring Europe along,” said Julianne Smith, a former national security aide to Vice President Joseph R. Biden Jr. “To the extent that the United States tries to put economic pressure on Russian industry, they won’t feel the impact as much as they would if we had Europe standing with us. That’s easier said than done.”

Look: it's obvious that none of this stuff can be done overnight. So maybe the peanut gallery on the right should hold off on the sophomoric name calling for another day or two. Obama is already working on the unilateral actions that are open to him, and other, broader sanctions simply won't have any serious effect unless and until the Europeans go along. No president can make that happen with a snap of his fingers.

Right now, the catcalls from the right are little more than transparent political opportunism. Obama's "weakness" didn't provoke Putin's military incursion into Crimea. If anything, it was provoked by Putin's feeling that the West was gaining influence in Ukraine and he was losing it. Nor is Obama refusing to respond decisively. He is refusing to give in to hysteria, but he plainly intends to make Putin pay a price for his adventurism. The fact that this can't be done instantly is just a feature of the world, not a sign of fecklessness on Obama's part. It's time for everyone to stand down a bit and see how he plays his hand.

UPDATE: Turns out that Michael Cohen already said all this and more here. It's worth a read.