Kevin Drum

No, the Poor Are Not Squandering Public Money on Filet Mignon

| Tue Apr. 14, 2015 10:53 AM EDT

Are the poor blowing their food stamps in wild bacchanalias of filet mignon and lobster thermidor? Is this something that we ought to keep a closer look on as protectors of the public purse?

You can probably figure out the answer already, but, um, no. Here are some relevant monthly figures for food spending among the poor, as collected by the Consumer Expenditure Survey:

  • Meat and fish: $48
  • Fruits and vegetables: $42
  • Alcohol: $15

Pretty obviously, there's a lot more baloney and chicken breasts here than steak and lobster. And this doesn't change a lot as you move up the income scale. The numbers above are for the poorest tenth of consumers, but they stay about the same even when you move slightly up the income ladder. The entire poorest third spends only about $323 total on food per month.

Should we encourage better nutrition and better food choices among the poor? Less McDonald's and more broccoli? For all sorts of reasons, of course we should. But should we be worried that public money is being squandered on prime rib or fresh Pacific swordfish? Nope. There's just no evidence that it's happening except as the occasional scary anecdote. It's a non-problem.

Max Ehrenfreund has more details here if you want some comparisons between rich and poor in various categories of consumer expenditures.

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Half of Emails Are Answered in 47 Minutes or Less

| Tue Apr. 14, 2015 9:25 AM EDT

Many people seem to agree that email sucks, and almost as many of us are annoyed by "inbox zero" coworkers telling everybody in earshot how damn productive they are. We get it.

But while we all agree that email is slow, tedious, annoying, and perhaps impersonal, it turns out that many of us are actually pretty decent at returning the messages we need to. According to a new study by the folks at Yahoo Labs on how quickly emails get answered, about 90 percent of emails are returned within a day. In fact, half of emails are answered within 47 minutes, with the most likely return time being just about two minutes. (Of course many of those replies are short, coming in at about five words.)

The study—which, as the largest ever of its kind, analyzed more than 16 billion email messages sent between 2 million (randomized and opt-in) Yahoo! email users over a several month period—went a little deeper than reply times. It also studied how extended email threads play out (the longer the thread, the quicker the replies come until there's a measurable pause before a concluding message); what time of day is best for getting a long response (morning); and demographics. Teens work the reply button the fastest, with a median reply time of about 13 minutes. Adults 20 to 35 years old came in at about 16 minutes. Adults aged 36 to 50 took about 24 minutes, and "mature" adults, aged 51 and over, took the longest at about 47 minutes. Gender seems to make less of a difference than age, with males replying in about 24 minutes and women taking about 28 (insert joke about women being more thoughtful here).

As you might expect, all those numbers go out the window when an attachment is involved: it takes emailers almost twice the time to respond to messages containing additional files. Another not-so-surprising tidbit from the study suggests that we're quickest to reply from our phones, then our tablets, and finally our desktops. And predictably the more emails you get, the fewer you actually respond to: the data indicates that people receiving 100 emails a day may answer just five.

Today's Republican Dilemma: Who Do They Hate More, Barack Obama or Vladimir Putin?

| Tue Apr. 14, 2015 12:43 AM EDT

Here's the latest from our pal in Russia:

President Vladimir V. Putin on Monday approved the delivery of a sophisticated air defense missile system to Iran, potentially complicating negotiations on Tehran’s nuclear program and further straining ties with Washington.

The sale could also undermine the Obama administration’s efforts to sell Congress and foreign allies on the nuclear deal, which Iran and the United States are still struggling to complete. It might also reduce the United States’ leverage in the talks by making it much harder for the United States or Israel to mount airstrikes against Iran’s nuclear infrastructure if the country ignored such an agreement.

Well, there you have it: Putin is eager to undermine any possibility of a US nuclear deal with Iran. This gives Republicans a choice: they can side with Putin or they can side with Barack Obama.

Decisions, decisions. I wonder what they'll choose?

Chart of the Day: Yet More Good News For Obamacare

| Mon Apr. 13, 2015 8:32 PM EDT

During Obamacare's initial open enrollment period, the uninsured rate dropped dramatically. Then it leveled out a bit when enrollment closed. So how are things going in its second year?

The latest Gallup numbers tell the story. During the first month of open enrollment, the uninsured rate dropped moderately, and then dropped sharply again during the first quarter of 2015. It's now down to 11.9 percent:

This is great news, and confirms previous reports. As before, according to Gallup, the biggest drops have been among the young and those with low incomes. This represents millions of people who can now get decent medical care without fear of bankruptcy, and it's being done at a surprisingly moderate cost. It's just inconceivable to me why Republicans are so hellbent on ruining a program that's showing such great results and such great promise for so many people.

Here's How Republicans Handed Hillary Clinton a Big Fat Opportunity on Social Security

| Mon Apr. 13, 2015 2:39 PM EDT

With Hillary Clinton now officially running for president, progressives are upping the pressure on her to embrace their policy agenda, including the holy grail of expanding Social Security benefits. As I wrote recently, Sen. Elizabeth Warren did her part to force a discussion about expanding benefits onto the national agenda by engineering a Senate vote that won the support of nearly every one of her Democratic colleagues in late March.

But it's actually Republicans, not progressives, who have essentially guaranteed that Social Security will be a major issue in 2016, setting up a battle that will provide stark contrast between the two parties on the issue: As National Journal's Dylan Scott wrote last week, House Republicans passed a little-noticed procedural rule back in January that will ensure a heated debate on the Social Security at the height of the presidential campaign.

As things stand now, in the final three months of 2016, the Social Security Disability Insurance trust fund will run out of money and beneficiaries will see an immediate 20 percent cut in benefits. Luckily, there's an easy fix: Congress can simply reallocate a small amount of payroll tax income from the larger Social Security retirement fund to the disability fund. In fact, this routine move has been done 11 times over the past several decades. And because the disability fund is so small compared to the general retirement fund, the fix would extend disability benefits until 2033 while hardly making a dent in the retirement fund. (The Center on Budget and Policy Priorities has a handy explainer on this.)

But just as Republicans in recent years have turned once routine debt ceiling votes into near-catastrophic showdowns, the Republicans' new procedural rule blocks the House from voting on this simple fix unless they also address the long-term solvency of the program by cutting benefits or raising taxes. Progressives expect House GOPers to use the rule to force through benefits cuts in late 2016.

Or at least that seems to be their plan. But what House Republicans have actually done is set up a battle that will force the two parties and their respective candidates to take a position on whether to expand or cut Social Security benefits in late 2016—just as Americans are picking their next president.

As advocates for expanding benefits will happily tell you, an overwhelming majority of voters support expansion. As retirement policy expert Mark Miller wrote back in January, "Mr. Obama and other Democratic leaders have been presented a great opportunity here to re-locate their spines on Social Security and reclaim the legacy of FDR."

Maybe Elizabeth Warren should send John Boehner a muffin basket to show her appreciation.

Saudi Arabia's Shiny New Air Campaign Not Working Any Better Than Anyone Else's

| Mon Apr. 13, 2015 11:31 AM EDT

Back when Egypt started bombing Libya and Saudi Arabia started bombing Yemen, American conservatives were jubilant. That's the kind of swift, decisive action Barack Obama ought to be taking against our enemies in the Mideast. Never mind that this already was the kind of action he had taken. It didn't really count because he had been too slow to ramp up attacks and had demonstrated too little bloodthirstiness in his announcements. Did he really want to "destroy" ISIS or merely "degrade" it? Dammit man, make up your mind!

This weekend, though, the LA Times reminded us that regardless of who's doing it, air strikes alone simply have a limited effectiveness in wars like this:

Officials in Saudi Arabia, the region's Sunni Muslim power, say the air campaign is dealing a decisive blow against the Houthis, whom they view as tools of aggression used by Shiite Muslim-led Iran in an expanding proxy war....However, residents say the strikes have done little to reverse the territorial gains of the insurgents and restore exiled President Abdu Rabu Mansour Hadi to power in the quickly fragmenting country.

....Security experts question whether the coalition can achieve its goals through airstrikes alone. Saudi officials have not ruled out sending in tanks, artillery and other ground forces massed along the frontier. But Saudi leaders appear wary of such a move against the Houthis, hardened guerrillas who belong to an offshoot of Shiite Islam known as Zaidism.

The last time the Saudis fought the Houthis in the rugged mountains of northern Yemen, in 2009, more than 100 of their men were killed. Pakistan's parliament voted Friday to stay out of the conflict, a blow to the Saudis, who had reportedly asked the country to send troops, fighter jets and warships.

"This [war] will turn Yemen into Saudi Arabia's Vietnam," said Mohammed al-Kibsi, a veteran journalist and commentator in Yemen's capital, Sana, where the Houthis seized control in September.

Air strikes are useful components of a wider war. But to the extent anyone can truly win these conflicts in the first place, it's going to take ground troops. Lots and lots of well-trained, well-equipped, and well-motivated ground troops. Saudi Arabia is "wary" of committing ground troops in Yemen and Pakistan is staying out. In Iraq, it's still a big question whether the Iraqi army is up to the task. And to state the obvious, even among America's most bellicose hawks, there's no real appetite for sending in US ground troops.1

This is just the way it is, and everyone knows it. Air strikes can do a bit of damage here and there, and they can serve as symbolic demonstrations of will. But none of these conflicts—not in Yemen, not in Iraq, not in Syria, and not in Libya—are going to be affected much by air campaigns alone. They need ground troops. If you loudly insist that Obama is a weakling as commander-in-chief but you're not willing to commit to that, you're just playing political games.

1And don't fall for the "special ops" ploy. Politicians who want to sound tough but don't want to ruin their careers by suggesting we deploy a hundred thousand troops in Iraq again, are fond of suggesting that we just need a bit of targeted help on the ground from special ops. This is clueless nonsense meant to con the rubes, but nothing more.

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This Chart Shows How State Taxes Screw You

| Mon Apr. 13, 2015 9:25 AM EDT

A lot of people think the federal tax code should be more progressive, but it looks downright socialist compared to the typical state tax code. A chart released last week by Citizens for Tax Justice puts it in context, showing how the wealthy typically pay lower state tax rates:

Citizens for Tax Justice

This problem isn't limited to conservative states: According to a recent report by the Institute on Taxation and Economic Policy (ITEP), every state places a higher effective tax rate on the poor than it does on the rich. In fact, several of the nation's most politically progressive states count among the worst when it comes to shoveling the tax burden onto low-income people and the middle class.

The nation's most regressive tax code belongs to Washington, a state that was ranked by The Hill last year as the bluest in the country based on its voting patterns and Democratic dominance. The poorest 20 percent of Washingtonians pay an effective state tax rate of 16.8 percent, while the wealthiest 1 percent effectively pay just 2.4 percent of their income in taxes.

There's a clear explanation for that: Washington has no income tax and thus heavily relies on a sales tax that disproportionately affects the poor. What's harder to grasp is why Washington's liberals put up with it.

Structural conditions help explain why regressive taxes endure in Washington and many other states. Some states require supermajorities to raise taxes or have constitutions that mandate a flat tax. In Washington's case, voters approved a personal income tax in 1932 by a two to one margin but were overruled the following year by the state Supreme Court, which decided that a constitutionally mandated 1 percent cap on property taxes also applied to income. An income tax bill passed by the state legislature a few years later was likewise struck down.

But the courts, weirdly, are no longer the biggest obstacle to a fairer tax code in Washington; over the years, they've gradually overturned most of the legal precedents that had been used to invalidate an income tax, and most experts believe such a tax would become law today if passed. The bigger problem is voters. In 2010, Washingtonians rejected by a whopping 30-point margin a proposal to establish an income tax that would only have applied to people earning more than $200,000 a year.

How do you square this with California, where, just two years later, a similar tax hike on the wealthy easily sailed through? Or with Oregon, Washington's political cousin, which has long had a progressive income tax?

I asked John Burbank, the executive director of the Seattle-based Economic Opportunity Institute and an architect of Washington's failed 2010 income tax measure, why he thought the measure had failed to pass. At first, he cited the off-year election and opposition scare tactics. But when pressed, he offered a third explanation that I think makes more sense: "There is almost like a cultural prohibition that exists."

In other words people, liberal or conservative, who live in states with low or no income taxes get used to paying little. They may differ on protecting the environment, legalizing weed, or raising the minimum wage, but when you start to mess with the system on which they've built their personal finances, they get scared and balk. This is why changing the tax code is so hard, even in states where people may in their hearts believe it's the right thing to do.

71 Years Ago FDR Dropped a Truthbomb That Still Resonates Today

| Sun Apr. 12, 2015 6:00 AM EDT
President Franklin D. Roosevelt broadcasts a speech in 1943.

When was the last time you heard an American politician invoke Franklin Delano Roosevelt's policies as models to be emulated? Democrats avoid him because his New Deal policies seem to embody the tax-and-spend, overbearing, and intrusive central government that always puts them on the defensive. And why would a Republican bother with Roosevelt when they believe that Obama is so much worse?

Sunday is the seventieth anniversary of FDR's death on April 12, 1945. Since anniversaries are always good opportunities to reflect on the past, I reread one of Roosevelt's speeches that I somehow still remember studying in college. It was his penultimate State of the Union Address, which he delivered on January 11, 1944, and the one in which he outlined a "second Bill of Rights"—a list of what should constitute basic economic security for Americans.

Does GE Capital's Demise Mean Financial Reform Is Working?

| Sat Apr. 11, 2015 8:32 PM EDT

Interesting post today from Paul Krugman about the shadow banking system and GE's recent decision to get out of the finance biz:

GE Capital was a quintessential example of the rise of shadow banking. In most important respects it acted like a bank; it created systemic risks very much like a bank; but it was effectively unregulated, and had to be bailed out through ad hoc arrangements that understandably had many people furious about putting taxpayers on the hook for private irresponsibility.

Most economists, I think, believe that the rise of shadow banking had less to do with real advantages of such nonbank banks than it did with regulatory arbitrage — that is, institutions like GE Capital were all about exploiting the lack of adequate oversight....So Dodd-Frank tries to fix the bad incentives by subjecting systemically important financial institutions — SIFIs — to greater oversight, higher capital and liquidity requirements, etc.. And sure enough, what GE is in effect saying is that if we have to compete on a level playing field, if we can’t play the moral hazard game, it’s not worth being in this business. That’s a clear demonstration that reform is having a real effect.

Read the whole thing for more.

By the way: On the occasions when I come up for air and write blog posts, I'll probably mostly be doing stuff like this. That is, quick links to something interesting without much additional commentary.

The reason is fatigue, which is nearly everpresent these days. Physically, this is a nuisance, but not much more. Mentally, though, it's worse, because it leaves me without the—what's the right word? Cognitive will? Cognitive ability?—to really think hard about stuff. And without that, I can't blog much even though typing is, obviously, not a very physically demanding activity.

Still, I continue to keep up as best I can, and I really love to blog. I won't quite say that being unable to blog is the worst part of this whole chemotherapy thing, but it's close. I just hate having ideas about the stuff I read but being just a little too foggy to really be sure of my ability to say something useful and coherent about it. So I'll continue pointing out items that interest me, but mostly leaving it at that.

In case you're curious, I use crossword puzzles as a sort of rough guide to my mental fatigue level. This afternoon, for example, I finished one. Hooray! That means I'm at least moderately alert. However, it was a Thursday puzzle1 and it took me about three hours to finally get through it. That's not so great. But who knows? Maybe it was just unusually hard. I'll try another one tonight.

1For those of you who aren't into crossword puzzles, the New York Times puzzle gets harder as the week progresses. A Thursday puzzle is a bit of a challenge, but usually not a big one. Good solvers can finish them in 5-10 minutes. For me, it's usually 15-30 minutes. Three hours is well outside my usual range.2

2Hmmm. On the other hand, maybe this wasn't my fault. I just checked, and the name of the third baseman in Abbott & Costello's "Who's On First?" sketch is indeed "I don't know." I kept trying to fit that in somewhere, but the answer in the puzzle was "Tell me something." Where did that come from?3

3Meh. While I was falling asleep I figured out where I'd gone wrong. The full NYT answer was "Tell me something I don't know." Perfectly correct. I just wasn't alert enough to figure it out.

Never Mind the Doubters: The Iran Deal Is Good Enough

| Sat Apr. 11, 2015 9:12 AM EDT
Iranian Foreign Minister Javad Zarif applauds after the conclusion of nuclear talks in Switzerland.

While Kevin Drum is focused on getting better, we've invited some of the remarkable writers and thinkers who have traded links and ideas with him from Blogosphere 1.0 to this day to contribute posts and keep the conversation going. Today we're honored to have Cheryl Rofer, who for 35 years worked as a chemist at Los Alamos National Laboratory. If you don't follow her already, be sure to check out her writing on national security, women's issues, science, and nuclear power and weapons at Nuclear Diner.

When I started blogging in November 2004, Kevin was already defining the field with short, topical posts and Friday Cat Blogging. The internet was a smaller place then, and most of us knew all the others, or at least knew of them. We argued. We linked to each other, hoping to boost our SEO. We shared each others' successes and mourned when Inkblot disappeared. Kevin has been a good companion over the years. His broad coverage of topics and to-the-point style are touchstones, even as I stray into the wonkier corners of the news.

Recently, I've been writing a lot about the recent negotiations with Iran. A few days past a deadline that had nuclear wonks on the edge of their seats, the talks between Tehran and officials from six other nations brought forth a plan for a plan.

That's not nothing, although it sounds vague. Some vagueness is necessary to keep all sides happy—and that means that any description of the deal will sound vague. The United States and its partners in the P5+1 would like a neatly written-down to-do list (which they have sorta provided), and Iran's Supreme Leader has decreed that all must be written down just once—exactly when isn't yet clear. The results of negotiations must be spun by the sides to their very different bases.

In America, two consensuses are building. Most in the arms control community and a wide swath of foreign policy experts, including some conservatives, feel that the deal as described in that fact sheet is better than expected and should keep Iran from getting a nuclear weapon for the next decade or more. Not bad.

The more hawkish consensus ranges from bombing Iran now to leaving the talks in hopes of a better deal, which amounts to bombing Iran later. Why not, when you're confident it would take only a few days of air strikes? They say the deal is no good because it does not guarantee Iranian compliance for perpetuity and does not totally destroy Iran's enrichment and other nuclear capabilities. Israel's Benjamin Netanyahu is apoplectic, but what else is new?

The same hawks also assured us back in 2003 that the invasion of Iraq would be a cakewalk. Their arguments this time around are just as boneheaded. According to the fact sheet, Iran would enter into agreements with the International Atomic Energy Agency under the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty; that would be, as much in perpetuity as any international deal can be. Under that treaty, Iran is entitled to peaceful nuclear energy, and, like any other country with smart scientists, can figure out how to make nuclear weapons. Bombs can't change that.

The final deal remains to be negotiated. The fact sheet is only an outline, and some issues will be easier to solve than others. Still to be worked out: Sanctions, particularly the schedule on which they are to be lifted. A list of research and development activities that Iran is allowed to pursue may or may not have been drawn up in Lausanne. Details on how Iran's enriched uranium stockpile will be reduced and the redesign of the Arak reactor are missing.

The extent of Iran's past activity on nuclear weapons was relegated to the IAEA by the P5+1 throughout the negotiations, and is a lesser provision in the fact sheet. Do we have to know all Iran's dirty secrets to police a future agreement? Probably not.

The Supreme Leader issued a tweet stream that seems to give his blessing for a deal to go forward, but his words were unclear enough that domestic hardliners could seize on them in an attempt to scuttle the deal. Iran's President Rouhani has voiced his support. In Israel, even the general who bombed the Osirak reactor thinks it's a good deal.

Stateside, President Obama is doing what he can to move the agreement along, talking to Sen. Bob Corker (R-Tenn.), the author of the bill most likely to throw a wrench in the machinery. Democrats who once supported that bill are now reconsidering that stance. The President has given major interviews to Tom Friedman and NPR. Secretary of Energy Ernest Moniz, who was part of the negotiations, is talking to the press.

Yes, if the sanctions are lifted, Iran might be able to make other sorts of trouble in the Middle East. But it's doing that anyway. We won't know for some time whether an agreement can mellow Iran by opening it to the world and better economic conditions.

If an agreement can be negotiated to completion, Iran can't get the bomb for a decade or more. That's enough for now.