Kevin Drum

There's a Big Untapped Market Out There for Insulting Libertarians

| Sat Oct. 24, 2015 11:26 AM EDT

Ah, the mysteries of blogging. Over on the right, you'll notice that a post of mine has been highlighted: "Here's Why Libertarians Are Mostly Men." But why? It's four months old. It's 200 words long. It probably took about 20 minutes to write. It offers up a theory that I pulled out of my ass.

And it has 161,000 Facebook likes. By contrast, my piece on lead and crime—by far the most important and most popular piece I've ever written for the magazine—has 87,000 likes after three years online. This quick post about libertarians is probably the most widely read prose I've ever written in my life.

Fine. My public has spoken. Less research, more Trumpesque insults aimed at libertarians. I'll see what I can do.

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IRS Turns Out to Be Big Bureaucracy, Not Terrorist Organization

| Sat Oct. 24, 2015 11:05 AM EDT

Let's check in on the latest in Obama administration tyranny and lawlessness. Hum de hum — oh, hey, look what's buried on page A12 of my LA Times this morning. The Justice Department has finished its investigation into Lois Lerner and her reign of terror at the IRS against hardworking conservative activist groups:

Assistant Atty. Gen. Peter J. Kadzik, who is in charge of congressional relations, told House Judiciary Committee Chairman Bob Goodlatte (R-Va.) that “we are closing our investigation and will not seek any criminal charges.”

....“Not a single IRS employee reported any allegation, concern or suspicion that the handling of tax-exempt applications — or any other IRS function — was motivated by political bias, discriminatory intent, or corruption," Kadzik said.

He said Justice had specifically absolved Lerner, who resigned over the allegations, of criminal liability, and found in fact that she was the first official to recognize the problem and to try and correct it.

Kadzik said that their investigation found evidence of mismanagement and institutional inertia, "But poor management is not a crime." I guess that's what they call this kind of organized oppression in Obama's America.

Anyway, I urge everyone to consider this outcome when thinking about Hillary Clinton's email server. Both are "scandals" pushed relentlessly by a right wing that's infuriated over everything related to the Obama administration. Both had some surface plausibility. And both were kind of sexy.

But as usual with these kinds of things—Solyndra, Fast & Furious, Benghazi, Sharyl Attkisson’s computer, etc. etc.—there's really nothing there. Sometimes some bad judgment, sometimes not even that. The fact that Republicans are outraged and have large megaphones to spread that outrage doesn't change this and doesn't justify 24/7 news coverage. So maybe a more temperate approach to these endlessly manufactured right-wing outrages would be appropriate. Just a thought.

Is Mitt Romney Mellowing on Obamacare?

| Fri Oct. 23, 2015 2:53 PM EDT

Tom Stemberg, one of the cofounders of Staples, died today. His company was famously funded by Bain Capital, and Stemberg became good friends with Mitt Romney:

Romney recalled that shortly after he was elected, Mr. Stemberg asked him why he ran for governor. Romney said he wanted to help people, and Mr. Stemberg replied that if he really wanted to help, he should give everyone access to health care, which Romney said he hadn’t really considered before.

“Without Tom pushing it, I don’t think we would have had Romneycare,” Romney said. “Without Romneycare, I don’t think we would have Obamacare. So without Tom, a lot of people wouldn’t have health insurance.”

That sure doesn't sound like a guy who's a diehard opponent of Obamacare, does it? I wonder if a decade from now Romney will be taking credit for kickstarting national health care in the United States?

Friday Cat Blogging - 23 October 2015

| Fri Oct. 23, 2015 1:52 PM EDT

In some Eastern religions, we are thought to be trapped in a long cycle of death and rebirth. When you die, you are reborn in another earthly body, moving ever upward as you build up positive karma in previous lives. Eventually, you break free and reach nirvana.

I think this is probably true, and the penultimate state before reaching nirvana is being a housecat that's adopted by humans who mysteriously find themselves compelled to treat the cat as royalty. Proof below. Any being who can attain this much happiness, even for a few moments, obviously has no place to go next but nirvana.

Of Course You Should Go Back in Time and Kill Hitler

| Fri Oct. 23, 2015 1:39 PM EDT

For some reason, the New York Times Magazine decided to poll its readers to see if they'd be willing to go back in time and kill Adolf Hitler as a baby. Only 42 percent said yes.

WTF? I assume there are no time travel paradoxes involved here, nor any baroque inventions about how the world actually ends up worse without World War II. Science fiction nerds like me (and lots of you, I assume) love to natter on about stuff like this, but it really doesn't seem like the NYTM's thing. Basically, you get transported back to Hitler's crib in 1889, you shoot him, and a few seconds later you return home. End of story. Would you do it?

I'm not an especially bloodthirsty guy, but hell yes, I'd do it. Sure, maybe World War II would happen anyway, though that's hardly inevitable. Maybe the Holocaust too. But even a reasonable chance of stopping either one of them would be well worth the life of a baby who would otherwise grow up to be a monster. What am I missing here? I wouldn't even hesitate.

Obamacare Can Help Keep People Off Disability

| Fri Oct. 23, 2015 1:19 PM EDT

Lydia DePillis tells us today about Paul Khouri, who has a rare and expensive medical condition. After steadily losing hours at his job, he finally lost his health insurance:

So instead of going out and trying to support himself with another job, Khouri took the safer option: Applying for Social Security disability insurance and Medicaid. It was a long process, requiring visits to doctor after doctor. Finally getting approved brought some relief — until he realized that returning to work would bring new complications. If he earned more than about $1,000 every month, he would quickly lose the medical assistance he desperately needed.

“It’s really scary when you’re worried about how much money you can make, because you don’t want to make too much,” Khouri says. “But at the same time, the benefits aren’t enough.” The average federal disability check is about $1,200 a month, which puts people right around the poverty line; Khouri is staying in his parents’ house to save on rent.

The prospect of falling over the “cash cliff,” as the sudden dropoff in disability insurance is known, is part of what’s keeping people with disabilities out of the workforce, despite many programs put in place over the years to reduce that disincentive.

DePillis spins this out as a way of explaining some problems with the Social Security disability program, but this is a little unclear. Khouri was apparently able to get a new job that paid $30,000 per year, but couldn't accept the full salary because he wanted to stay eligible for Medicaid benefits. But he can't be turned down for Obamacare, so why not sign up for that? With an expensive condition, Khouri would likely pay the full $2,000 annual premium plus the $6,600 out-of-pocket max every year, but that would still leave him with $21,400. Even after taxes, this is more than he gets from disability payments, and he wouldn't have to limit his future promotions.

Maybe I'm missing something. It's true that Medicaid is more reliable, since you can't lose it regardless of whether you have any income. More generally, this stuff can be tricky and there are sometimes details that aren't obvious from the outside. Still, while a better, more universal health care system would certainly help here, even Obamacare seems like it would help a lot.

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Hurricane Patricia Could Devastate Mexico for Decades

| Fri Oct. 23, 2015 12:21 PM EDT

I'm neither a weather blogger nor a natural disaster blogger, but holy cow: Hurricane Patricia is set to absolutely devastate Mexico in a few hours. Brad Plumer provides the basics:

The storm's current size is shocking. Just 30 hours ago, Patricia was an ordinary hurricane with maximum winds of 60 miles per hour. Since then, Patricia has grown into a monster Category 5 hurricane, with maximum sustained winds nearing 200 miles per hour. The current storm appears to be unprecedented in the historical record.

Naturally, Drudge is going nuts, and with good reason. Plumer directs us to a study of long-term hurricane damage to a region's economy, and Patricia could be unbelievably destructive:

According to the table on the left, a big hurricane can decrease income by 14.9 percent 20 years later. But there's also this: "The largest event in our sample (78.3 m/s) is estimated to have reduced long-run GDP by 29.8%." Patricia is currently running at about 90 meters per second. If it stays this powerful, the chart on the right suggests it could kill thousands and reduce the GDP of the Mexican coast west of Mexico City by 30-40 percent for decades.

Grand Moff Tarkin Not Such a Bad Guy After All

| Fri Oct. 23, 2015 10:55 AM EDT

Brad Delong points me to Ogged, who points me to a recent tweet from Bill Kristol:

A commenter has an obvious and seemingly devastating riposte: "Other than blowing up an entire planet to torture a prisoner/deter other planets, the Empire was pretty moderate."

But wait. The size of the Star Wars galaxy is in some dispute, and I'm not willing to spend more than a minute or so on this. But apparently the galaxy contained about 50 million star systems during the reign of the Empire. If we assume Alderaan was more or less typical, it means the Death Star killed one 50-millionth of the galactic population. Assuming I haven't slipped a decimal point somewhere, that's about equivalent to killing 140 people on present-day Earth.

See? Not so bad! That's about 0.0002 percent as bad as Hitler in World War II. It's about 0.07 percent as bad as George Bush in the Iraq War. And honestly, the enhanced interrogation of Han didn't look all that bad either. I think we really have to give this one to Kristol. You can't make an omelette without breaking a few eggs.

Paul Ryan Has Never Been Much of a Match for President Obama

| Fri Oct. 23, 2015 10:08 AM EDT

Conservative Philip Klein explains what drives Paul Ryan, who's likely to become the next Speaker of the House:

The prospect of Speaker Ryan has pitted those who portray him as some sort of enemy against conservatism against those who try to defend him as an unimpeachable conservative icon.

In reality, neither of these views capture who Ryan is. In the many interviews I've conducted with Ryan over the years, what's been clear is that he is philosophically conservative and passionate about trying to translate abstract limited government principles into tangible policy solutions.

....After President Obama took office, when many Republicans were opposing Obama and his agenda in a mindless way, Ryan was able to able to make detailed, fact-based critiques of the administration's policies, calmly but devastatingly annihilating Obama's deficit skullduggery and dubious healthcare claims.

Hmmm. I watched the televised health care "summit" and I remember Ryan being pretty ineffective. In fact, I thought Obama defanged him methodically and convincingly. Nor has Ryan "annihilated" any deficit skullduggery that I can remember. He issues his roadmaps, which no one really seems to take seriously any longer since the magic asterisks keep getting larger and bolder over time, and he's cut a few pragmatic budget deals with Democrats. He has a calm affect, and he undoubtedly understands the minutiae of the budget process.

But the truth is that he's not a very effective critic of the administration. He doesn't rile the base like some of the tea party guys, and his technical criticisms don't usually amount to much. Partly this is because, contra Klein, Obama is relatively honest about his budget claims, which makes it hard to tear them apart, and partly because Ryan's own claims have lost credibility thanks to his relentless unwillingness to explain exactly what he'd cut to reach his Holy Grail of lower taxes and a balanced budget.

In theory, Ryan's combination of conservative street cred and pragmatic approach to getting things done should serve him well as Speaker. But then, that's more or less what I thought about Scott Walker, too, and we all saw how that turned out. Ryan is going to have a tough time trying to herd Republican cats into a semblance of order. Good luck.

No, Poor People Don't Inherit a Lot of Money

| Thu Oct. 22, 2015 11:26 PM EDT

I had a doctor's appointment this afternoon, so I missed the twilight session of the Benghazi hearing. When I got home, it was 8 pm on the East Coast....and the hearing was still going on. Yikes. I assume I didn't miss anything, did I?

Anyway, while I was in the waiting room I was browsing The Corner and came across the graphic on the right. It struck me as peculiar. The bottom income quintile in America gets 43 percent of its wealth from inheritance? Even granting that these households don't have much wealth to begin with, that really didn't seem right.

There was a link to a piece by Kevin Williamson that turned out to be two years old—which is something like two decades in blog years. Still, I was curious, and I had nothing else to do while I waited. So I clicked the link. Here's what Williamson says:

For the top income quintile, gifts and inheritances amount to 13 percent of household wealth, according to research published by the Bureau of Labor Statistics....Meanwhile, inherited money makes up 43 percent of the wealth of the lowest income group and 31 percent for the second-lowest. In case our would-be class warriors are having trouble running the numbers here, that means that inherited money on net reduces wealth inequality in the United States.

This is pretty misleading. I tracked down the BLS report, and it turns out this 43 percent figure is only for those households that inherit anything in the first place. But as you might expect, a mere 17 percent of low-income households report any inheritance at all. If you average this wealth across all low-income households, inheritance accounts for about 7.4 percent of the wealth of the entire group. If you do the same thing for the top earners, inheritance accounts for about 4.9 percent of the wealth of the entire group.

So....7.4 percent vs. 4.9 percent. When you compare entire groups, which is the right way to do this, there's not very much difference between the two. And in a practical sense, the difference is even more negligible. If you run out the numbers, the wealth of the bottom group increased from $56,000 to $63,000 per household. Big whoop. Conversely, the wealth of the top group increased from $7.2 million to $7.6 million. That's a nice chunk of change. In a technical sense, the low-income group got a bigger percentage increase, and income inequality has been reduced. But in any normal human sense, $7,000 is such a tiny amount that it doesn't matter. In a nutshell, rich people inherit a lot of money and poor people don't.

I'm not really sure what the point of being misleading about this is, since Williamson's main themes in the linked piece are (a) rich people don't get most of their money from inheritance, and (b) rich people are mostly married and work a lot of hours. Those things are both true, and there's no real reason to toss in the other stuff. All it does is provide grist for other people to make misleading graphics later on.