Kevin Drum

Republicans Are Already Prepping for Possible Government Shutdown in the Fall

| Fri Mar. 6, 2015 12:01 PM EST

The Supreme Court will rule later this year on the question of whether Obamacare subsidies should be repealed in states that don't run their own insurance exchanges. That would gut a major portion of the law, and Jonathan Weisman reports today that because of this, "the search for a replacement by Republican lawmakers is finally gaining momentum."

I'm not quite sure how he could write that with a straight face, since I think we all know just how serious Republicans are about passing health care reform of their own. In any case, I think the real news comes a few paragraphs down:

Aides to senior House Republicans said Thursday that committee chairmen were meeting now to decide whether a budget plan — due out the week of March 16 — will include parliamentary language, known as reconciliation instructions, that would allow much of a Republican health care plan to pass the filibuster-prone Senate with a simple majority.

Representative Tom Price of Georgia, the House Budget Committee chairman, said that reconciliation language would be kept broad enough to allow Republican leaders to use it later in the year however they see fit, whether that is passing health care legislation over a Senate filibuster or focusing on taxes or other matters.

If this is true, it means that Republicans are prepping for yet another government shutdown over Obamacare. Any budget that tried to essentially repeal Obamacare in favor of a Republican "replacement" would obviously be met with a swift veto, and that would lead inevitably to the usual dreary standoff that we've seen so often over the past few years.

Of course, this will all be moot if the Supreme Court upholds Obamacare in the way common sense dictates. Still, it's something of a sign of things to come. Shutdown politics is pretty clearly still alive and well in the GOP ranks.

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The Hack Gap Lives!

| Fri Mar. 6, 2015 11:33 AM EST

I've been following the news a little vaguely over the past few days, but I noticed an interesting confirmation of the hack gap in the treatment of Hillary Clinton's email affair. Perhaps you noticed too? There was, obviously, a difference in the way liberals and conservatives treated the news that Hillary had used a private email address for all her correspondence while she was Secretary of State. But it was a matter of degree, not attitude.

On the liberal side, I saw a lots of people seriously questioning what had happened. And not just here in the pages of MoJo. I saw it on MSNBC. I saw it in newspaper columns. I saw it in blog posts. Lots of liberals treated this as a legitimate issue and suggested that Hillary had some serious questions to answer. This didn't just come from a few iconoclasts, either. It came from all over the place, and was generally viewed, at the least, as an example of questionable judgment, if not proof that Hillary is the antichrist we've always known she was.

I know the counterfactual game can get a little tiresome sometimes, but still: it's hard to imagine the same thing happening if a heavy Republican frontrunner had done something like this. The hack gap lives.

Chart of the Day: Net New Jobs in February

| Fri Mar. 6, 2015 11:16 AM EST

The American economy added 295,000 new jobs last month, 90,000 of which were needed to keep up with population growth. This means that net job growth clocked in at 205,000 jobs, which is quite a bit better than January and represents a nice confirmation that the labor market has picked up over the past four months. Virtually all of the growth was in the private sector.

The headline unemployment rate went down to 5.5 percent, but this was due to a combination of more people getting jobs and more people dropping out of the labor force and no longer being counted in the unemployment numbers. So this is a fairly mixed report. Unsurprisingly, since it doesn't represent a huge growth in the actual number of people employed, wages remained sluggish. Average hourly earning went up three cents, or 0.12 percent. Moody's Mark Zandi tried to put a positive spin on this: he told the New York Times that "current wage growth data appeared gloomier than the underlying reality, in part because of demographic factors. As well-paid baby boomers enter retirement, to be replaced by younger workers starting out at lower salaries, he said, the overall wage pattern has tilted slightly lower. Also, people who have been out of work for long stretches are starting to come back into the labor force and accepting lower wages."

So....not bad. But not quite as good as the top line number suggests. We're still motoring along, but we're still in second gear. We still haven't really seen a sharp shift upward.

Health Note Placeholder

| Fri Mar. 6, 2015 1:36 AM EST

So where was I all day Thursday? It's getting a little late and I'm tired, but I promise to regale you with the whole story sometime Friday. It wasn't quite what I was expecting, but in the end things probably turned out OK. More in the morning.

Health Note

| Wed Mar. 4, 2015 9:32 PM EST

I suppose the lack of content makes it obvious, but today has been a very bad day. I haven't been able to sleep more than a few hours for the past few days, despite plenty of sleep meds. I'm completely exhausted, and not just because of the lack of sleep. That's just making things worse. I can walk about 50 feet before I need to rest. My big accomplishment of the day was to turn on the TV around noon.

I assume this is all just part of the chemo withdrawal symptoms, but I don't really know. Tomorrow I have an appointment with an oncology nurse, so perhaps I'll learn more then.

If there's a silver lining to this, I suppose it's the possibility that this is the bottom of the post-chemo symptoms, and now I'll start getting better. We'll see.

Tea Party Loses Big in Today's Vote on Clean DHS Funding Bill

| Tue Mar. 3, 2015 4:00 PM EST

It looks like the conventional wisdom was correct:

The House will vote as soon as Tuesday afternoon on a bill to fund the Department of Homeland Security for the rest of the fiscal year. The measure will not target President Obama's executive actions on immigration, giving Democrats what they have long demanded and potentially enraging conservatives bent on fighting the president on immigration.

…The decision marks a big win for Democrats, who have long demanded that Congress pass a "clean" bill to fund DHS free of any immigration riders. For weeks, Boehner and his top deputies have refused to take up such a bill, as conservatives have demanded using the DHS debate to take on Obama's directives, which include action to prevent the deportations of millions of undocumented immigrants.

I thought the most likely course was a brief DHS shutdown (a week or two) just to save face, followed by a pretty clean funding bill. But I was too pessimistic. Apparently the House leadership wasn't willing to take the PR hit that would inevitably involve.

I wonder if Republicans could have gotten a better deal if the tea party faction had been less bullheaded? Last week's debacle, where they torpedoed even a three-week funding extension, surely demonstrated to Boehner that he had no choice but to ignore the tea partiers entirely. They simply were never going to support anything except a full repeal of Obama's immigration actions, and that was never a remotely realistic option. The subsequent one-week extension passed only thanks to Democratic votes, and that made it clear that working with Democrats was Boehner's only real choice. And that in turn meant a clean funding bill.

But what if the tea partiers had signaled some willingness to compromise? Could they have passed a bill that repealed some small part of Obama's program—and that could have passed the Senate? Maybe. Instead they got nothing. I guess maybe they'd rather stick to their guns than accomplish something small but useful. That sends a signal to their base, but unfortunately for them, it also sends a signal to Boehner. And increasingly, that signal is that he has no choice but to stop paying attention to their demands. There's nothing in it for Boehner, is there?

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Summers: Yes, the Robots Are Coming to Take Our Jobs

| Tue Mar. 3, 2015 1:58 PM EST

Jim Tankersley called up Larry Summers to ask him to clarify his views on whether automation is hurting middle-class job prospects. Despite reports that he no longer supports this view, apparently he does:

Tankersley: How do you think about the effects of technology and automation on workers today, particularly those in the middle class?

Summers: No one should speak with certainty about these matters, because there are challenges in the statistics, and there are conflicts in the data. But it seems to me that there is a wave of what certainly appears to be labor-substitutive innovation. And that probably, we are only in the early innings of such a wave.

I think this is precisely right. I suspect that:

  • Automation began having an effect on jobs around the year 2000.
  • The effect is very small so far.
  • So small, in fact, that it probably can't be measured reliably. There's too much noise from other sources.
  • And I might be wrong about this.

In any case, this is at least the right argument to be having. There's been a sort of straw-man argument making the rounds recently that automation has had a big impact on jobs since 2010 and is responsible for the weak recovery from the Great Recession. I suppose there are some people who believe this, but I really don't think it's the consensus view of people (like me) who believe that automation is a small problem today that's going to grow in the future. My guess is that when economists look back a couple of decades from now, they're going to to date the automation revolution from about the year 2000—but that since its effects are exponential, we barely noticed it for the first decade. We'll notice it more this decade; a lot more in the 2020s; and by the 2030s it will be inarguably the biggest economic challenge we face.

Summers also gets it right on the value of education. He believes it's important, but he doesn't think it will do anything to address skyrocketing income inequality:

It is not likely, in my view, that any feasible program of improving education will have a large impact on inequality in any relevant horizon.

First, almost two-thirds of the labor force in 2030 is already out of school today. Second, most of the inequality we observe is within education group — within high school graduates or within college graduates, rather than between high school graduates and college graduates. Third, inequality within college graduates is actually somewhat greater than inequality within high school graduates. Fourth, changing patterns of education is unlikely to have much to do with a rising share of the top 1 percent, which is probably the most important inequality phenomenon. So I am all for improving education. But to suggest that improving education is the solution to inequality is, I think, an evasion.

Also read Kevin's #longread all about this stuff: Welcome, Robot Overlords. Please Don't Fire Us?

This is the key fact. Rising inequality is almost all due to the immense rise in the incomes of the top 1 percent. But no one argues that the top 1 percent are better educated than, say, the top 10 percent. As Summers says, if we improve our educational outcomes, that will have a broad positive effect on the economy. But it very plainly won't have any effect on the dynamics that have shoveled so much of our economic gains to the very wealthy.

The rest is worth a read (it's a fairly short interview). Summers isn't saying anything that lots of other people haven't said before, but he's an influential guy. The fact that he's saying it too means this is well on its way to becoming conventional wisdom.

There's Really No Plan B on Iran, Is There?

| Tue Mar. 3, 2015 12:08 PM EST

Yesterday was one of my bad days, but one consequence of that was that I zoned out in front of the TV for long stretches. That allowed me to hear an endless procession of talking heads spend time talking about what we should do about Iran.

The striking thing was not that there was lots of criticism from conservatives about President Obama's negotiating strategy. The striking thing was the complete lack of any real alternative from these folks. I listened to interviewer after interviewer ask various people what they'd do instead, and the answers were all the weakest of weak tea. A few mentioned tighter sanctions, but without much conviction since (a) sanctions are already pretty tight and (b) even the hawks seem to understand that mere sanctions are unlikely to stop Iran's nuclear program anyway. Beyond that there was nothing.

That is, with the refreshing (?) exception of Rep. Jason Chaffetz, who sounded a bit like Jack Nicholson in A Few Good Men after being badgered a bit by Wolf Blitzer. Military action? You're damn right I want to see military action. Or words to that effect, anyway. But of course, this sentiment was behind the scenes everywhere, even if most of the hawkish talking heads didn't quite say it so forthrightly. I noticed that even President Obama, in his interview with Reuters, specifically mentioned "military action," rather than the usual euphemism of "all cards are on the table."

In my vague, laymanish way, this sure makes me wonder just how seriously military action really is on the table. I mean, I realize there are no really great options here, but a major war against Iran sure seems like a helluva bad idea—so bad that even the hawks ought to be thinking twice about this. That's especially true since I've heard no one who thinks it would permanently disable Iran's nuclear program anyway. It would just cause them to redouble their efforts and to do a better job of hiding it.

I'm not saying anything new here. It only struck me a little harder than usual after watching so many interviews about Iran in the space of just a few hours (and I wasn't even watching Fox at all). There's really no Plan B here, and even the hawks are mostly reluctant to explicitly say that we should just up and launch a massive air assault on Iran. It's a weird, almost ghostly controversy we're having.

Tikrit is an Early Test of Iraq vs. ISIS

| Mon Mar. 2, 2015 12:09 PM EST

Well, here we go:

The Iraqi military, alongside thousands of Shiite militia fighters, began a large-scale offensive on Monday to retake the city of Tikrit from the Islamic State....Monday’s attack, which officials said involved more than 30,000 fighters supported by Iraqi helicopters and jets, was the boldest effort yet to recapture Tikrit and, Iraqi officials said, the largest Iraqi offensive anywhere in the country since the Islamic State took control of Mosul, Iraq’s second-largest city, in June. It was unclear if airstrikes from the American-led coalition, which has been bombing Islamic State positions in Iraq since August, were involved in the early stages of the offensive on Monday.

From a military perspective, capturing Tikrit is seen as an important precursor to an operation to retake Mosul, which lies farther north. Success in Tikrit could push up the timetable for a Mosul campaign, while failure would most likely mean more delays.

This is a test of whether the American training of Iraqi troops has made much difference. If it has, this latest attempt to take Tikrit might succeed. If not, it will probably fail like all the other attempts.

It's worth noting that 30,000 troops to take Tikrit is about the equivalent of 200,000 troops to take a city the size of Mosul. So even if the Iraqi offensive is successful, it's still not clear what it means going forward. Stay tuned.

Quote of the Day: Secret Scheming Places of Tea Party Congressmen Revealed!

| Sun Mar. 1, 2015 2:43 PM EST

From Republican Rep. Devin Nunes, on the tactics of tea partiers who are holding up the DHS funding bill over their increasingly pointless insistence that it include a provision repealing President Obama's immigration program:

While conservative leaders are trying to move the ball up the field, these other members sit in exotic places like basements of Mexican restaurants and upper levels of House office buildings, seemingly unaware that they can't advance conservatism by playing fantasy football with their voting cards.

Um, OK. Not exactly House of Cards, but OK.