Kevin Drum

Being Poor in America Really Sucks

| Thu Nov. 17, 2011 1:51 PM EST

There's voluminous evidence demonstrating that income inequality has skyrocketed in the United States over the past few decades and is now higher than in virtually every other developed country. This might not be all that bad if income mobility had also increased, but a number of recent studies have shown just the opposite: at best, mobility is no better than it's ever been, and it might actually have decreased a bit. Generally speaking, the rich are a lot richer than they used to be, and unless you start in an upper middle class family to begin with, the odds of ever joining the ranks of the rich have gone down.

But why? The Pew Economic Mobility Project gives us a clue today. The chart on the right compares four big English-speaking countries on a single measure: vocabulary test scores of five-year-olds. You'd expect that children of highly educated parents would do well and children of poorly educated parents would do badly. And you'd be right. On average, the children of poorly educated parents have both genetic and environmental disadvantages, so it's no surprise that they do worse than average.

But in the United States they do a lot worse. The Pew chart is normalized so that children of middle-educated parents score in the 50th percentile and other children are compared to that standard. In Canada, the least-advantaged kids manage to score at the 37th percentile. In the United States they score at only the 27th percentile.

Now, it's pretty unlikely that Canadian kids with low-educated parents are genetically unluckier than American kids with low-educated parents. Genes may account for some of the overall difference between rich and poor kids, but not for the difference between Canada and the U.S. That has a lot more to do with how we raise our kids and what kind of attention we give them at early ages. On that score, the United States does wretchedly. We simply don't give our poorest kids a fair start in life.

More on that tomorrow morning.

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The Anti-Tax Jihad Lives On

| Thu Nov. 17, 2011 12:54 PM EST

The easiest way to address our long-term deficit problem is to do nothing. This is normally something Congress is pretty good at, so you'd think they could pull this off. The problem is that in this case "nothing" means letting the Bush tax cuts expire as planned, and nobody — not congressional Republicans, not congressional Democrats, and not President Obama — wants to do that. But if they did, it would cut the deficit by about $4 trillion over the next decade, far more than any of the other plans on the table.

This whole tax issue is what lies behind so much of the nonsense you hear about the supercommittee. Today, for example, George Will tells us indignantly that Republicans are offering up $500 million in revenue increases but Democrats have turned up their noses at it. Leave aside the fact that $200 billion of this is just gimmickry; the truth is that this isn't even $300 billion in new revenue because it comes with a condition: permanent extension of all the Bush tax cuts. The net effect is a revenue decrease of $3.7 trillion.

So why aren't Democrats screaming from the rooftops about this? Well, they can't, because they're committed to extending most of the Bush tax cuts themselves. They want to get rid of the tax cuts for the rich, but that's small potatoes. The middle-class tax cuts — which mostly go to the rich too, but never mind that — add up to about $3.3 trillion and Democrats have already taken them off the table. Matt Yglesias is unhappy about this:

An underlying issue here is something that drives me nuts and that I think progressives need to think much harder about — the toxic impact of the Democrats rallying in 2008 around the cry of absolutely no tax increases of any kind for the non-rich. Pushing for a more progressive tax code is great, but pushing for rich-people-only tax increases has proven to be a good applause line in speeches that’s made actual governance incredibly difficult.

Agreed. The only question is: is this really just an applause line? Or is it a matter of electoral survival? We liberals keep thinking that anti-tax fever has to crest any time now, and I remember a slew of magazine pieces predicting exactly that around 2006-07. But it hasn't happened yet. Or, more accurately, I guess I should say that Democrats are still scared witless by the idea of proposing a broad tax increase, and the evidence suggests they're right to be.

In a way, the persistence of anti-tax fervor is surprising. The numbers, after all, are crystal clear: if the Bush tax cuts are extended, closing the deficit gap is all but impossible no matter how much Republicans bluster otherwise. But nobody likes taxes, and in the middle of hard times they like them even less. So the anti-tax jihad lives on. It's true that it makes prudent governance all but impossible, but the public doesn't appear to be in any mood to deal with the truth right now and Republicans are willing to spend gargantuan sums to keep them in that mood. The solution to this is murky, to say the least.

Rick Perry's Money Problem

| Thu Nov. 17, 2011 12:00 PM EST

Given the obvious loathing of the Republican base for Mitt Romney, I've been reluctant to flatly rule out the possibility of Rick Perry winning the nomination despite his Gardasil heresy, his immigration gaffe, and his cringe-inducing debate performances. I'm willing to flatly rule out Herman Cain, but not Perry.

However, if this story from the Houston Chronicle is true, then Perry might be well and truly screwed:

Texas Gov. Rick Perry’s campaign fundraising has gone into a tailspin as a result of poor debate performances and plunging poll numbers, jeopardizing his position as the best-funded Republican presidential candidate of 2012.

....But Perry’s loyal backers are running into resistance from Republican donors. One Perry fundraiser, who asked not to be named, said he received 15 RSVPs for a recent event from potential donors saying they might attend. But after a gaffe-marred Perry debate performance, none showed up.

....Another Perry fundraiser said he expects the Texas governor to raise between $3 million and $5 million in the final three months of 2012 — less than one-third of what he generated in the first six weeks of his candidacy.

The fat lady hasn't quite sung yet, but she is definitely warming up her pipes. There's still time for Perry to rebound, but Iowa is less than seven weeks away, so the "there's still time" meme is rapidly approaching its sell-by date. If Perry's going to mount a comeback, he better get started.

Via Patrick Caldwell.

Rick Perry: Obama is a Socialist

| Wed Nov. 16, 2011 10:08 PM EST

Rick Perry has gotten plenty of pushback for his latest ad, which accuses President Obama of saying that "Americans are lazy." Obama didn't say that, of course, just like he's never gone on an apology tour, he's never bad-mouthed American exceptionalism, and he's never said he hates Christians. It doesn't matter, though. I suppose this one is bound to take its place in the great Republican pantheon of Obama's imaginary rhetorical sins along with all the other stuff they've made up. It's sort of remarkable how invested they are in this kind of thing.

But there's more to this ad than just that! Michael Scherer chastises Perry for lying about what Obama said. Dan Amira mocks him for his inability to speak correctly even on a taped spot. (No teleprompter, I guess.) But so far I haven't seen anyone even blink at the fact that Perry finishes up by telling us that "Obama's socialist policies are bankrupting America."

Has it come to that? Is calling Obama a socialist now so routine that it doesn't even raise an eyebrow anymore? I guess I must have missed it when we passed that milestone.

The Debasement of Science

| Wed Nov. 16, 2011 2:30 PM EST

Jonathan Zimmerman notes today that opposition to fluoride in drinking water is back on the rise. But he says there's good news: this time it's based on medical evidence, not kooky conspiracy theories. Fairbanks, Alaska, for example, stopped fluoridating its water this year:

Are they right? I doubt it. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and the American Dental Assn. continue to recommend water fluoridation, which they say reduces tooth decay by 25%. And I'm inclined to follow the lead of the leading professional organizations on matters involving their own vocations.

But I'm also glad that the anti-fluoridators are resting their case on science, which provides a shared framework for dialogue and understanding. And that makes them very different from the nation's first critics who were — to put it mildly — paranoid kooks.

This provides Zimmerman with an opportunity to regale us with the history of these kooks, which is certainly good clean fun. Unfortunately, I think he's off base on his wider point. Fluoride aside, it's true that most crackpot arguments these days take on the veneer of science. Creationism has become Intelligent Design. Global warming deniers write lengthy statistical critiques of climate change research. Tax cutters produce Greek-letter-laden academic papers demonstrating that lower rates on rich people will supercharge the economy. Toxin manufacturers of all kinds rely, as they always have, on blizzards of industry-supported research showing that their products are safe. Even abortion activists turn to science to "prove" that human life begins at conception.

There's no question about it: science reigns supreme today. Unfortunately, this doesn't mean that we collectively take empirical evidence more seriously than we used to. What it means is that science has become increasingly debased, just another partisan tool that an increasing number of people take no more seriously than advertising claims about who has the best pizza. Scientists have their version of science and everyone else has theirs. And that version is decidedly not the same as the "elitist" version practiced by the guys in white lab coats.

Reality-based opposition to fluoride may be something to smile about, as Zimmerman says. But if so, it's the exception, not the rule. More generally, the crackpots have simply learned that their arguments sound better when they're wrapped in the language of science. As a result, the public now seems to view science as little more than a flag of convenience for whichever side they sympathize with most. And that's not anything to smile about.

Chart of the Day: How Not to Create Jobs

| Wed Nov. 16, 2011 1:23 PM EST

Chuck Marr of CBPP notes that the CBO recently studied a laundry list of job creation proposals and concluded that higher unemployment benefits had the biggest bang for the buck. "That’s not surprising," he says, "given that jobless people are severely cash constrained and would quickly spend most of any incremental increase in cash and that, in turn, would lead to higher demand and job creation."

But which proposal came in last? You'll have to scroll wa-a-a-a-y down to the bottom of this chart to see it, but the answer is: a tax repatriation holiday for big multinational corporations. So riddle me this: What is Congress more likely to pass? A program that benefits the 99% and creates lots of jobs? Or a program that benefits the 1% and creates hardly any jobs at all? Hmmm....

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Deal? What Deal?

| Wed Nov. 16, 2011 12:20 PM EST

As the supercommittee slouches toward its inevitable doom, Republicans are setting the table to renege on the deal they signed up for this summer. If the committee fails to come up with a plan, and the automatic cuts to domestic and defense spending are triggered, well, they'll just have to go back to the table and eliminate the defense cuts. Dave Weigel explains the all-too-obvious next step:

This isn't how it's supposed to work. The cuts are supposed to be stupid. They're so stupid that everyone will be forced to the table, lest they be responsible for taking a Sam Raimi chainsaw to the defense budget and Medicaid. The correct answer to Kudlow etc is some version of "Well, we're not going to fail, because if we do we will have to pass these triggers." Instead, Republicans are talking about rejiggering the triggers, which would set up a fight on defense spending, which Democrats would be hard pressed to win when they don't control the House and when 21 of their senators are vulnerable to truth-remixing Crossroads GPS ads about how they literally pried guns out of the hands of soldiers. Best case scenario: This is a GOP negotiating tactic. Worst case scenario?

The trigger is supposed to be $600 billion in domestic cuts and $600 billion in defense cuts. But how many Democrats will be willing to stick to their guns and allow the Pentagon cuts to go forward if the supercommittee fails? Not enough, probably, and Republicans know it. What's more, they've always known it, which is why they've never taken the trigger seriously. Reneging on this summer's deal was baked into the cake from the day it was proposed.

This is, after all, a party that was willing to allow the United States to default on its debt in order to get its way. To a party like that, a deal is just a meaningless piece of paper. It's unlikely that Democrats have the spine to deal with that kind of attitude — they certainly haven't up to now — which means they'll probably give in on domestic spending.

Alternatively, Congress will do what it does best: it will resort to budget gimmicks, pat itself on the back, and head home for the holidays. Given the alternatives, that actually might be the best possible outcome.

Newt Gingrich's $300K Jackpot

| Tue Nov. 15, 2011 9:28 PM EST

When CNBC's John Harwood asked Newt Gingrich what he did to earn $300,000 consulting for Freddie Mac, he said that he offered them historical advice. This is so plainly implausible that there's not much point in wasting time pretending to take it seriously enough to debunk it, but Bloomberg reporters Clea Benson and Kristin Jensen took the time anyway. That's professionalism for you. And the real answer turns out to be sort of interesting in a way. Gingrich, we're told, didn't perform any lobbying:

Freddie Mac officials expected Gingrich to provide written material that could be circulated among conservatives on Capitol Hill and in outside organizations, said two former company executives familiar with Gingrich’s role at the firm. And executives looked to him to help them find innovative ways to address the problems confronting Freddie Mac, said an official familiar with the company’s internal dynamics.

The former speaker attended brainstorming sessions with Freddie Mac’s management. He didn’t produce a white paper or any other document the firm could use on its behalf.

Impressive! Gingrich was expected to provide written material, but whatever that was, it wasn't substantial enough to even be called a white paper. All he did, apparently, was shoot the breeze with company brass, schmooze donors to Freddie's PAC, and give a speech or two. For that he got paid $300,000.

That's some pretty lucrative historical advice, no? Where do I sign up for this kind of payday?

Deconstructing Newt

| Tue Nov. 15, 2011 6:46 PM EST

John McWhorter deconstructs the verbal tsunami that is Newt Gingrich:

Gingrich's patterns of speech are largely analytically acute, and sometimes aesthetically interesting, but substantively, they are very often lacking. Language is supposed to be a package that carries substance, but Gingrich is sometimes so pleased with his uninterrupted stream of words, that he mistakes it for an actual flow of ideas.

Fair enough. But I'd put it a little differently: Gingrich's favorite debate ploy is to avoid answering tough questions by immediately zooming out to a million-foot level and explaining imperiously how enormously complex everything is. It's all so impressive sounding that he seldom has to bother telling us just what he'd do about any of this enormously complex stuff. Here are a few examples from the most recent debate:

On negotiating with the Taliban:

Look, I think this is so much bigger and deeper a problem than we've talked about as a country that we don't have a clue how hard this is going to be. First of all, the Taliban survives for the very same reason that historically we said guerillas always survive, which is they have a sanctuary....So I think this has to be a much larger strategic discussion that starts with, frankly, Pakistan on the one end and Iran on the other, because Afghanistan is in between the two countries and is the least important of the three countries.

On cutting government:

There are four interlocking national security problems. Debt and the deficit's one. Energy is a second one. Manufacturing is a third one. And science and technology's a fourth. And you need to have solutions that fit all four.

On dealing with a loose nuke in Pakistan:

Well, look. This is a good example of the mess we've gotten ourselves into since the Church Committee so-called reforms in 1970s. We don't have a reliable intelligence service. We don't have independent intelligence in places like Pakistan....This is a very good example of scenarios people ought to look at seriously and say, "We had better overhaul everything from rules of engagement to how we run the intelligence community, because we are in a very dangerous world."

Gingrich is hardly the first blowhard in history to routinely talk this way, but he's certainly made it into a political art form. It all sounds very erudite, but mostly it just allows him to avoid concrete answers. And even when he does get concrete, he most often just ends up spouting buzz phrases like "Lean Six Sigma" and "human capital" and "Agenda 21."

This isn't because he has no concrete answers. When he wants to, he can be perfectly concrete. But when he doesn't feel like getting himself into a jam, he puts on his best world-weary expression, retreats to the million-foot level beloved of management consultants and tweedy professors, and then finishes off with a couple of trendy buzzwords. I often wonder just who he thinks he's kidding with this act, but it does have the virtue of baffling the masses with bullshit so that he can plausibly claim to be the most conservative guy on the stage without ever giving anyone an opening to prove otherwise.

TransCanada Agrees to Reroute Keystone XL Pipeline

| Tue Nov. 15, 2011 4:17 PM EST

The only thing that surprises me about this is that it didn't happen sooner:

The builders of the controversial Keystone XL tar sands pipeline agreed Monday to reroute it around Nebraska's ecologically fragile Sandhills in the hope the move would shorten any delay in the project, which has posed political complications for the Obama administration.

....The announcement came during a special session of the Nebraska Legislature and won immediate support from many lawmakers....Under the agreement with TransCanada, the Nebraska Department of Environmental Quality will join federal officials in preparing a supplemental environmental impact statement to study an alternative route around the Sandhills.

When the State Department issued its delaying order last week, its official position was that it needed more time to study the effect of the pipeline on the Ogallala aquifer, especially the Sandhills section where a rupture could easily seep pollutants into the water supply. So why did the Keystone folks refuse to consider rerouting in the first place? Why not spend a little bit more and take away the Obama administration's easy excuse for delay?

It is a mystery. I guess they thought they didn't need to. In any case, TransCanada's suggestion that maybe now the State Department will consider making a decision in a few months, instead of dragging things out for a year or more, is charming but clearly a nonstarter. It's pretty obvious that "12 to 18 months" means "sometime after November 6, 2012." If Obama wins reelection, I don't doubt for a second that he'll wait a decent interval and then approve the new routing. The victory of the environmental movement over Keystone XL was almost certainly just a temporary reprieve.