Kevin Drum

Disability Insurance Is Going to Be a Big Deal In Next Year's Presidential Campaign

| Wed Jul. 22, 2015 2:35 PM EDT

Another year, another report from the Social Security Trustees. Here's the basic chart, which shows the combined Social Security Trust fund becoming insolvent in 2034, one year later than last year's projection. At that point, if nothing is done, benefit checks will be reduced about 25 percent.

There's not much change since 2014, as you'd expect since this stuff doesn't change a lot from year to year. The bigger news is that if you pull apart OASI (old age benefits) from DI (disability), it turns out that DI is going to be insolvent next year. Everyone has known this for a while, so it's no big shock. But next year is an election year, which means Congress either needs to come up with a fix this year, while everyone is mesmerized by Donald Trump, or else put it off until next year, when they'll have to do it under the blazing white klieg lights of a presidential campaign.

It'll probably be next year, since Social Security traditionally doesn't get fixed until it's literally a few days away from not sending out checks to people. That should make this a great campaign issue between Republicans, who think DI is going broke because too many lazy bums are gaming the system, and Democrats, who mostly think it's going broke because boomers are retiring and the economy is still weak.

So who wins this argument? Republicans have a story that will appeal to their base audience, but when you finally get to the point where checks to disabled people are being reduced—or not being sent out at all—that tends to concentrate the mind wonderfully. Public opinion will likely end up on the side of the disabled, especially since the usual fix (moving a bit of money from OASI to DI) is cheap and painless.

But we'll see. In any case, this is a fight that can't be avoided. You can count on it becoming a focal point of next year's campaign.

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CFPB Wins $700 Million Deceptive Practices Case Against Citibank, So Ted Cruz Wants to Shut Them Down

| Wed Jul. 22, 2015 12:25 PM EDT

Steve Benen points out today that Ted Cruz wants to eliminate the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau because it "does little to protect consumers." Ironically, this comes on the same day that the CFPB won a case against Citibank for deceptive practices that resulted in a $700 million fine. But irony is not a Republican strong suit, and most of them not only want to eliminate the CFPB, they want to eliminate all of Dodd-Frank while they're at it.

This is not a big surprise since (a) Republicans have hated Dodd-Frank all along and virtually all of them voted against it, (b) it's an Obama thing, nuff said, and (c) it forces big banks to treat consumers fairly, and Republicans don't like laws that force big banks—or any other big business—to treat consumers fairly. Benen comments:

If the Dodd/Frank were actually imposing unreasonable burdens on well intentioned financial institutions, the complaints might be worth considering, but the fact remains that Wall Street reform is an under-appreciated success story. The repeal crusade is misguided on political and policy grounds.

This actually brings up a point worth repeating: one of the prices we pay for extreme political polarization is the inability to tweak big laws after they're passed. No Democrat would claim that Obamacare is perfect, for example. With a few years of experience under our belts, there are some things we now recognize could have been done better. But it's impossible to tweak the law because Republicans flatly refuse to cooperate. It's repeal or nothing. To their base, tweaking the law would be a tacit admission that Obamacare can be improved, and that's effectively treason to the cause. It's a socialist nightmare and it has to be torn out root and branch, period.

The same dynamic is true of Dodd-Frank. You can make a good case, for example, that the Dodd-Frank rules pose an unnecessary burden on small community banks that are obviously no threat to the financial system. But even if Democrats would now be willing to loosen the compliance requirements for banks under a certain size, there's no way to make it happen. It's a tweak to the law, and supporting that tweak merely helps Dodd-Frank stay on the books. Better to keep the law as crappy as possible so that opposition to it stays as strong as possible.

We see this play out over and over. Modern legislation is inherently complex and needs to be periodically tweaked to keep it working properly. When you can't do that, it steadily gums up the works and keeps everyone in a seething fury about how incompetent the federal government is.

Which is the whole point, of course. Welcome to the modern Republican Party. The more they can make a hash out of government operations, the better off they are.

The Republican Party Has Only Itself to Blame for Donald Trump

| Wed Jul. 22, 2015 11:07 AM EDT

Seth Masket argues persuasively that we should judge parties by who they nominate, not by who runs. After all, anyone can run, even a carnival barker cretin like Donald Trump. I basically agree, but I also think Jonathan Bernstein makes a good point:

Seth Masket at Mischiefs of Faction is correct: Parties define themselves through their nominations, including the part where they reject some candidates. But it’s also true that Republicans have been teaching their voters for at least 40 years to respond to what Donald Trump is selling.

Yep. The party elders may not like Trump, but he's the price they pay for the devil's bargain they made years ago to aggressively go after the angry white guy vote. Eventually the perfect AWG candidate was going to come along, and it was never likely to be pretty when it happened. And it isn't.

Chart of the Day: We're a Car Crazy Nation Yet Again

| Wed Jul. 22, 2015 10:30 AM EDT

Bill McBride passes along the news that after a five-year slump, vehicle miles traveled in the US started to rise again in 2012, and in May of this year finally surpassed the previous record. However, this is a 12-month rolling average, so it's a little slow to pick up trends. You can see things more clearly in the chart on the right, which shows seasonally-adjusted monthly miles traveled. In the past 18 months, it's increased from 250 billion miles per month to 260 billion miles per month. That significantly outpaces population growth, which means that over the past year or so we're not only driving more, we're driving more per person.

Brad Plumer has much more here, but the basics seem simple: the economy has finally started growing and gasoline prices have been low. That's enough to get us all back in our cars.

So was it ever the case that American young 'uns fell out of love with the automobile, which partly explained why miles traveled dipped so dramatically during the recession? That's a favored explanation among urban pundits, where Zipcars and Uber are popular and lots of people don't bother owning cars. But I've always doubted it. It really does seem to be true that teenagers simply don't care about learning to drive as much as teenagers of my generation, but for the most part that just means they learn to drive a little later. And if they live in the burbs, they need to drive, same as always. They couldn't afford it while they were living in mom's basement during the recession, but they can now, and that's why car sales are up and miles driven are up.

We still love our cars, and now we can afford to use them. That will probably continue to be true until gas goes up to five bucks a gallon again. Here in California we're surprisingly close to that ($4.49/gallon for my last fill-up!), but the rest of you are still enjoying relatively cheap prices. What's more, with fracking moving along smartly, and Iran probably close to dumping another few million barrels of oil on the global market daily once sanctions ease up, prices seem likely to stay fairly low for the foreseeable future. That's unfortunate news for the planet, but good news for consumers.

When Is a Tax Not a Tax? When It's a Fee to Keep the Highway Trust Fund From Going Broke Next Month.

| Tue Jul. 21, 2015 9:48 PM EDT

Good news! The Senate has come up with a compromise 6-year highway funding bill. It's 1,030 pages long, so no one really knows what's in it, and it only specifies funding sources for three years. But let's not be picky. It's a bill. So where's the money coming from?

Under the Senate agreement, Congress would raise $47.1 billion to cover three years’ worth of spending through a combination of spending cuts and tax increases. Lawmakers came up with $9 billion of the total by agreeing to sell 101 million barrels of oil from the nation’s emergency stockpile over a seven-year period through fiscal 2025. Another $16 billion would come from lowering to 1.5% from 6% the dividend paid to all but the smallest banks that are members of the Federal Reserve system.

Seriously? Tax increases? Mitch McConnell agreed to this? Maybe it's in the $22 billion that's mysteriously absent from the Wall Street Journal's report. Let's see if The Hill has more:

"The bill is fully offset with spending reductions or changes to federal programs," [three Senate sponsors] said. "It does not increase the deficit or raise taxes."

....The proposal calls for generating $16.3 billion from interest rate changes, $9 billion from sales of reserved oil, $4 billion from customs fees, $3.5 billion from the TSA fees and $1.9 billion from extending guarantees on mortgage-backed securities that had been scheduled to start declining in 2021. Other funding sources in the measure include approximately $7.7 billion in tax compliance measures.

Hmmm. I guess "fees" don't count as taxes? And apparently neither do "tax compliance measures"—though I've certainly heard Republicans claim in the past that efforts to get rich people to actually pay their taxes were little more than a stealth tax increase.

Tomayto, tomahto. Best not to be too fastidious about these things. For example, "tax compliance measures" seems to include a provision that blocks Social Security payments to individuals with felony warrants. That's a tax compliance measure? Sure, I guess. Whatever.

Amusingly, the money from customs fees comes from indexing them for inflation. And that's OK with Mitch McConnell. But indexing the gasoline tax to inflation? That's a tax increase. Absolutely out of the question.

Anyway, the House has its own highway bill, which only runs for six months but would supposedly give them time to come up with a real, honest-to-goodness, fully-funded 6-year bill. That's very optimistic, considering that Congress has been haggling over this for seven years now and has never been able to do more than pass a quick fix that kicks the can down the road for a few more months. And that might happen again. McConnell and the other sponsors of the Senate legislation want their bill voted on quickly and then approved by the House before the August recess, since that's when the Highway Trust Fund literally goes broke. But plenty of senators aren't on board yet, and House leaders are skeptical too. If we end up with yet another 90-day fix, don't be too surprised.

AFFH: What You Need to Know to Keep Up With the Latest Right-Wing Outrage

| Tue Jul. 21, 2015 2:39 PM EDT

Conservatives have a whole laundry list of stuff they're outraged about: Benghazi, Fast & Furious, Agenda 21, Obamaphones, etc. etc. So what's the latest from the right wing? Stanley Kurtz tells us:

Conservative opinion has been alive with outrage over AFFH for a month now.

Huh. Never heard of it. But a few minutes of Googling will get me up to speed. Hold on a bit.

OK. So it turns out that the Fair Housing Act of 1968 outlaws most of the obvious forms of housing discrimination, and has done a relatively good job of enforcing discrimination rules since then. However, it also requires the Department of Housing and Urban Development to run its programs in a way that affirmatively furthers fair housing. That is, if a local community is heavily segregated, it has to affirmatively try to reduce that segregation in order to qualify for HUD funds.

It turns out that HUD hasn't done much of anything about this particular aspect of the law, and President Obama would like them to start. So a couple of years ago HUD started developing guidelines called, uncreatively, "Affirmatively Furthering Fair Housing." Last year they released a tool for assessing segregation and fair housing choice that can be used by community planners, and a few days ago they released the final 377-page rule.

That's the basics. It's surprisingly hard to get more because Google returns almost exclusively either (a) evaluations of AFFH by civil rights and fair housing groups, or (b) outraged rants from conservative outlets. Ordinary newspapers seem to have little interest (or, as Kurtz puts it, "The mainstream press has been straining to avoid AFFH").

Obviously I'm not going to pretend to be an instant expert now that I've read half a dozen pieces about AFFH, but basically the concrete goals seem to be (1) providing communities with data regarding the racial, ethnic and income distribution of housing in their towns; (2) encouraging and funding affordable housing in prosperous areas; and (3) pressing communities to change zoning rules that promote segregation.

Will it work? Hard to say. HUD's only tool for enforcing its guidelines is to withhold money for HUD programs if communities don't comply. However, prosperous communities don't get much HUD funding in the first place, which means HUD has little leverage in high-income suburbs. They'll probably be able to almost entirely avoid the long arm of HUD tyranny.

Anyway, that's that. Mostly I just wanted to let everyone know that this thing called AFFH is the latest outrage among the conservative base. It fits in perfectly with their hysteria over Agenda 21 and their general belief that Obama wants to round up every well-off white person in the country and pack them like sardines into high-rise buildings in big cities. Now you know.

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Raw Data: How Many Unarmed Victims Do Police Shoot Each Year?

| Tue Jul. 21, 2015 1:09 PM EDT

Via Bob Somerby, here's some raw data from the Washington Post's ongoing analysis of police shootings in America:

According to the Post, about 16 percent of the victims weren't carrying a deadly weapon at the time they were killed. That breaks down like this:

  • 26 blacks out of 132, or about 20 percent.
  • 35 whites out of 253, or about 14 percent.
  • 17 Hispanics out of 83, or about 20 percent.

These percentages are roughly similar across races, but don't account for total population. When you account for that, unarmed blacks are killed at about 4x the rate of whites and 2x the rate of Hispanics.

In Today's GOP, It Pays to Be a Moderate as Long as You Don't Act Like One

| Tue Jul. 21, 2015 12:11 PM EDT

Ed Kilgore writes today about John Kasich's biggest problem:

There's a fundamental truth in Republican politics that I hope will someday stop being true: there's rarely any percentage at all in proclaiming oneself as a moderate.

That's not because there are no self-identified moderate voters in the GOP; as of January of this year, according to Gallup, 24% of GOP voters fall into that category. But the dominant conservative faction in the party just cannot tolerate leaders who don't share The True Faith, so unless one aims at capping one's support at about one in five Republicans, it's a bad idea to Go There.

There's a weird thing about this. Kilgore is right that there's no percentage in proclaiming yourself a moderate. But there is a big percentage in being a moderate. That's because those Gallup numbers are misleading. Sure, 70 percent of Republicans say they're conservative, but that hides a lot of variation. There are tea-party conservatives, social conservatives, and business conservatives. In practice, a fair number of the non-tea partiers are relatively moderate.

My guess remains the same as it was in 2012: Roughly half of GOP voters are effective moderates. That's why Romney won. While the rest of the field competed like starved piranhas for scraps of the True Believer vote, Romney hammed it up as a conservative to protect his flanks, but with enough of a wink and a nod to quietly scoop up most of the moderate vote. And that put him way ahead of everyone else.

Jeb Bush is in the same position this year. The difference is (a) he's a Bush, and (b) he doesn't necessarily have the moderate voters all to himself. There are guys like Kasich who might peel off a bit of it, but more troubling for Bush is that Scott Walker may end up competing for the moderate vote too. So far he's not showing signs of doing it very well, but that could change. If it does, we could easily end up with Bush, Walker, and one of the tea partiers beating each other bloody well into spring.

ISIS Starting to Look Like a Real Government

| Tue Jul. 21, 2015 11:29 AM EDT

Stephen Walt is growing pessimistic about our current limited effort to "degrade and destroy" ISIS:

He added that now, after almost a year of American airstrikes on the group, it is becoming clear that “only a large-scale foreign intervention is likely to roll back and ultimately eliminate the Islamic State.”

....This is mostly because many Sunnis in both countries who live under the group see no viable alternative, especially not in a return to rule by the governments of Syria and Iraq. Sunnis in Iraq remain broadly hostile to the Shiite-controlled central government. As for Syria, President Bashar al-Assad has presided over a civil war that has killed more than 200,000 people and basically dislocated half the population.

In other words, ISIS may be brutal, but at least they're not corrupt. "You can travel from Raqqa to Mosul and no one will dare to stop you even if you carry $1 million," said one resident. "No one would dare to take even one dollar."

Sadly, in the Middle East that counts for a lot. If, in the end, the Shiite troops of Iraq simply don't care enough about the Sunni areas to risk their lives getting it back, and if the Sunnis who live under ISIS actively prefer brutal Sunni rule to the corrupt Shiite rule of Baghdad, then ISIS wins. Unless, of course, we undertake Walt's "large-scale foreign intervention."

And obviously there's only one country that can do that. Right now, everyone thinks the Iran treaty is going to be the big foreign policy issue of next year's election. Maybe. But I think interest will fade after it's a done deal. Instead, ISIS will probably dominate the conversation, and Republicans will have to put up or shut up. If President Obama's limited strategy of training and airstrikes isn't working, are they willing to commit to a large-scale intervention using ground troops? That's likely to be the big foreign policy issue of the election.

Trump Takes Big GOP Lead, But Plummets After McCain Remarks

| Mon Jul. 20, 2015 5:42 PM EDT

Today brings the latest presidential poll from the fine folks at ABC News and the Washington Post. The big news is that Hillary Clinton has maintained her 63-14 percent lead over Bernie Sanders.

Just kidding! I know you don't care about that. You want to know what's going on over in GOP-ville. Your answer is in the chart on the right. Walker and Bush have both gained slightly over the last month, but nearly every other candidate has lost support. And where has that support gone? To Donald Trump, of course. But then there's this:

How long the Trump surge lasts is an open question; this poll was conducted Thursday through Sunday, mostly before his controversial criticism Saturday of Sen. John McCain’s status as a war hero. And Trump’s support was conspicuously lower Sunday than in the three previous days.

In a hypothetical three-way matchup between Clinton, Bush, and Trump, Trump's support was 21 percent from Thursday to Saturday, vs. 13 percent in Sunday interviews.

There's no telling how this plays out. If Trump implodes—and he will eventually, even if his McCain comments don't do the trick—it's likely that his supporters will shift to tea-party conservatives: Huckabee, Cruz, Perry, maybe Rubio, and probably Walker. But not Bush.

Or....well, who knows? ABC News tells us that Trump's support dropped in Sunday interviews, but they don't tell us who that support shifted to. We'll have to wait and see. Maybe Bush will come out of this better than I think.