Kevin Drum

Chart of the Day: The Economy Still Sucks

| Tue Aug. 3, 2010 2:34 PM EDT

Here's the latest from Greenberg Quinlan Rosner. It shows the number of people who have experienced various kinds of economic distress over the past year. In their latest poll, 44% have seen reduced wages, 41% have lost their job, 28% have lost their health insurance, and 22% have fallen behind on their mortgages. Every single one of these numbers is up since the beginning of the year.

And the political result? About what you'd expect: a year ago people trusted Democrats over Republicans by 14 points to manage the economy and by 9 points to manage the deficit. Today they trust Republicans by 13 points and 18 points respectively. I'm still willing to go out on a limb and say that Democrats will retain control of the House in November, but polls like this don't do anything for my confidence.

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America's New, Peaceful Future?

| Tue Aug. 3, 2010 1:52 PM EDT

Matt Steinglass is surprisingly optimistic that we're about to enter a new, more reticent age of American power projection:

There haven't been many examples lately of people learning from their mistakes, but the invasion of Iraq appears to be a mistake from which some lessons have been learned. It's difficult to imagine America returning to fantasies of easy conquest and democracy-building anytime in the next few decades, anywhere in the world. Summing up the mood, Joe Klein calls the invasion a "national disaster", and calls for new criteria for the use of American military force that are actually rather old criteria: "We should never go to war unless we have been attacked or are under direct, immediate threat of attack. Never. And never again."

I would very much like to believe this. But I really don't. We left Vietnam in 1975 and were supposedly so scarred that we'd never do anything like that again in any of our lifetimes. Your definition of "like that" might be different from mine, but a mere five years later we dipped our toe into Afghanistan and then, over the next 30 years, intervened militarily in Grenada, Nicaragua, Panama, Iraq, Somalia, Haiti, Kosovo, Afghanistan 2.0, and Iraq 2.0. In other words, once every three or four years, which is about as frequently as we did this kind of thing before Vietnam. Some scarring, eh?

Right now it looks like we've learned a lesson because, aside from a bit of chest beating from frustrated neocons over Iran, no one's banging the war drums. But no one was banging the war drums in 1976, either, which is why it looked like maybe we were going to enter a new era back then too. Then the Soviets invaded Afghanistan and suddenly everything changed. So let's not declare a victory for common sense in foreign policy just yet. I'll believe things have changed when something actually happens overseas, a president tries to build support for intervention, and Congress and the public—including Joe Klein and me—balk. That will mean things have changed.

In the meantime, my friend Marc Danziger, whose son is in Afghanistan, is full of contempt for the way the Pentagon wages war ("It's like we turned the military over to the DMV") and believes that our big problem there is that "We have no strategic objective." Well, one man's strategic objective is another man's blather, but the fact is that President Obama has clearly articulated what he wants to accomplish:

I set a goal that was narrowly defined as disrupting, dismantling, and defeating al Qaeda and its extremist allies, and pledged to better coordinate our military and civilian efforts....We must deny al Qaeda a safe haven. We must reverse the Taliban's momentum and deny it the ability to overthrow the government. And we must strengthen the capacity of Afghanistan's security forces and government so that they can take lead responsibility for Afghanistan's future.

Now, maybe you don't like this objective. Maybe you think it needs to fit into a grander global plan of some kind. I don't, especially, but it's a perfectly legitimate view. Still, even if we had a different global plan than we do now, I don't think it would change what we want to accomplish in Afghanistan and it wouldn't change the difficulty of accomplishing it. This kind of counterinsurgency campaign is just really hard, and hardly anyone ever succeeds at it. Our current rules of engagement, which are frustrating for everyone, nonetheless seem to be about as effective as they can be. A year from now, if they're still not working, even with a huge increase in troops and an obviously highly competent officer like David Petraeus in charge, it's hard to believe that anything else would work either. The Pentagon's idea of how to wage war might or might not be as good as it could be, but failing to do the impossible is hardly evidence of it. It's primarily evidence that we've taken on an intractable task.

And we'll probably do it again. Just give us a few years to regroup and a plausible sounding enemy somewhere overseas. I'm pretty sure we'll hop right back on that horse.

Quote of the Day: Living in the Tea Party World

| Tue Aug. 3, 2010 12:52 PM EDT

From Rep. Bob Inglis (R–SC), a guy with a 93% rating from the American Conservative Union who lost a primary last month to a Tea Party candidate 71%-29%, on meeting up with his constituents during the campaign:

I sat down, and they said on the back of your Social Security card, there's a number. That number indicates the bank that bought you when you were born based on a projection of your life's earnings, and you are collateral. We are all collateral for the banks. I have this look like, "What the heck are you talking about?" I'm trying to hide that look and look clueless. I figured clueless was better than argumentative. So they said, "You don't know this?! You are a member of Congress, and you don't know this?!" And I said, "Please forgive me. I'm just ignorant of these things." And then of course, it turned into something about the Federal Reserve and the Bilderbergers and all that stuff. And now you have the feeling of anti-Semitism here coming in, mixing in. Wow.

David Corn has the full story here. And yes, I know it's South Carolina. Still, for those who occasionally think that tea parties represent just a small extreme wing of the Republican Party, you might think again after reading what Inglis has to say.

Why Prop 8 Passed

| Tue Aug. 3, 2010 12:19 PM EDT

Why did California's Proposition 8, which banned gay marriage, pass in 2008? Obviously some groups voted for it in larger numbers than others, but in the LA Times today David Fleischer takes a look at which groups changed their votes as the campaign progressed:

The shift, it turns out, was greatest among parents with children under 18 living at home — many of them white Democrats.

The numbers are staggering. In the last six weeks, when both sides saturated the airwaves with television ads, more than 687,000 voters changed their minds and decided to oppose same-sex marriage. More than 500,000 of those, the data suggest, were parents with children under 18 living at home. Because the proposition passed by 600,000 votes, this shift alone more than handed victory to proponents.

....One final false assumption by same-sex marriage supporters was that the election was so close that it will be easy to pass same-sex marriage the next time out. It's true that the official election results — 52% to 48% — appeared quite close. But the truth is more complicated. The data we analyzed show that the No on 8 campaign benefitted from voter confusion.

Polling suggests that half a million people who opposed same-sex marriage mistakenly voted against the proposition. They were confused by the idea that a "no" vote was actually a vote for gay marriage. This "wrong-way voting" affected both sides, but overwhelmingly it helped the "no" side. Our analysis suggests that the division among California voters on same-sex marriage at the time of Proposition 8 was actually 54% to 46% — not so close. We are actually 1 million votes away from being able to reverse Proposition 8.

Fleischer suggests that the big turning point came when the Yes on 8 campaign started airing the "Princes" ad ("Mommy, mommy, I learned how a prince married a prince and I can marry a princess!"). Shortly after that, as the chart on the right shows, mothers with young children dramatically changed their views, going from 52%-38% opposition to 50%-38% support.

Anytime an election is close, as the Prop 8 election was, there are dozens of things you can point to as the difference maker. So this isn't necessarily the last word. Still, it's a pretty good demonstration of just how easy it is to demagogue gay marriage, even in liberal California. We're getting closer, but we're not there yet. The full report is here.

Ryan's Roadmap Revisited

| Tue Aug. 3, 2010 11:32 AM EDT

I complained yesterday that Paul Ryan's "Roadmap for America's Future" was a fraud: it doesn't really tell us where he'd cut spending, it just places arbitrary caps on various kinds of spending and calls it a day. Ezra Klein says I'm being unfair:

That's how single-payer works, too: It puts health-care spending into a single budget and caps its increase. That's how the Clinton plan worked, what with its global budgets and premium caps. That's how Jacob Hacker's plan for the Economic Policy Institute worked: Inside the exchanges, spending could only grow by GDP plus one percentage point. That's how the strong public option would've worked, as payment could only grow using Medicare's formula, which doesn't permit the cost increases of the private market.

At the end of the day, that's why Ryan's plan is a more honest entry into the debate. For a long time, liberals were talking about the sort of things you would actually have to do to get health-care spending under control while conservatives simply criticized the downsides of those intimidating reforms. And the main thing you have to do is get health-care spending into a single budget and then stick to it.

Fair enough. There's still the fact that Ryan doesn't really fess up to cutting Social Security payouts, doesn't provide any hint about how he'd cut discretionary spending, and proposes a new tax system that's wildly beneficial to the rich. But on healthcare costs, Ezra's point is fair enough.

Up to a point, that is, because there is still a difference. In a single-payer system, there's a pretty good theory about how costs are held down: by using the market power of the government to negotiate lower prices for drugs, devices, medical services, and so forth. What's more, we have the experience of dozens of single-payer systems in other countries to suggest that this works. Plus there's the fact that a single-payer system explicitly gives some government entity the job of deciding which medical services are covered and which aren't. Not everyone likes this idea, but it's there.

Ryan's plan, by contrast, doesn't do any of this. There's not even much of a theory about how it will hold down costs. It simply writes a check to Medicare recipients and then tells them to cut the best deal they can with any approved private supplier. This might work, but I can't really think of a lot of real-world examples where something like this has worked — especially since the bulk of the non-Medicare healthcare system is left unaffected by Ryan's plan. More likely, medical costs will continue to rise and Medicare recipients will either have to settle for crappy service or else simply pony up a whole lot of out-of-pocket expenses on their own.

Needless to say, not everyone likes this idea either. Let's be clear: we've given the private market many decades to show that it can make medical care more efficient and less costly. In theory, this ought to work, but in practice it's failed miserably. Conversely, single-payer plans have a demonstrated track record of providing high quality service while keeping costs well below what we pay in America. That's because single-payer systems have an actual mechanism for controlling costs. You can decide for yourself if you like that mechanism, but it's there. Ryan's plan, by contrast, doesn't have one and most likely won't control costs at all. It will just force Medicare recipients to pay an ever larger part of the bill. Your choice.

Freezing Out the Press

| Tue Aug. 3, 2010 11:09 AM EDT

Here is Senate candidate Sharron Angle accidentally telling the truth about why she only talks to Fox News and other members of the right wing press:

We wanted them to ask the questions we want to answer so that they report the news the way we want it to be reported and when I get on a show and I say send me money to SharronAngle.com, so that your listeners will know that if they want to support me they need to go to SharronAngle.com.

Okey doke. Even Fox's Carl Cameron had a little trouble swallowing this, but let's face it: this is the wave of the future. The traditional old school press grilling used to be the price you paid because you needed traditional old school press coverage. Today you don't really need that, so why not skip the whole thing and just appear in places that let you set the agenda and openly beg for money? I expect liberals to follow suit quickly.

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Congress and the Media

| Mon Aug. 2, 2010 6:19 PM EDT

George Packer goes through a long list of reasons the Senate has become broken recently — CSPAN, 3-day workweeks, spiraling fundraising requirements, ideological hardening following the Reagan Revolution — and then adds this one:

One day in his office, [Tom] Udall picked up some tabloids from his coffee table and waved them at me. “You know about all these rags that cover the Hill, right?” he said, smiling. There are five dailies — Politico, The Hill, Roll Call, CongressDaily, and CQ Today — all of which emphasize insider conflict....Bloggers carry so much influence that many senators have a young press aide dedicated to the care and feeding of online media. News about, by, and for a tiny kingdom of political obsessives dominates the attention of senators and staff, while stories that might affect their constituents go unreported because their home-state papers can no longer afford to have bureaus in Washington.

[Chris] Dodd, who came to the Senate in 1981 and will leave next January, told me, “I used to have eleven Connecticut newspaper reporters who covered me on a daily basis. I don’t have one today, and haven’t had one in a number of years. Instead, D.C. publications only see me through the prism of conflict.” Lamar Alexander described the effect as “this instant radicalizing of positions to the left and the right.”

The new media environment may have some advantages over the old one, but the old one had a few too. This one is a pretty good example.

DC's Strange Love Affair with Paul Ryan

| Mon Aug. 2, 2010 5:31 PM EDT

Jamelle Bouie explains why Republicans ought to be delighted with Rep. Paul Ryan's "Roadmap for America's Future":

Under the Ryan plan, taxes for the richest 1 percent of Americans would fall by half, on top of making the Bush tax cuts permanent....Households with incomes of more than $1 million would receive an average annual tax cut of $502,000, and the richest one-tenth of 1 percent of Americans would receive an average tax cut of $1.7 million a year. To offset these tax cuts, the Ryan plan would place a consumption tax on most goods and services.

These taxes would overwhelmingly affect working and middle-class Americans. According to Citizens for Tax Justice, the Ryan plan would increase taxes by an average of $2,000 on everyone with an income under $100,000.

This is an underappreciated aspect of Ryan's plan. Another underappreciated aspect, and one that's fast becoming a pet peeve of mine, is that there's nothing "smart" or "brave" about it. For some reason, practically everyone talks about how Ryan is the only Republican in Congress who's willing to put his money where his mouth is and tell us exactly what he'd cut out of the federal budget. But he doesn't. His plan merely caps various kinds of spending: there's a cap on Medicare, a cap on Social Security, and a cap on domestic spending. Reduced to its policy essence, that's it.

This is the fourth grade version of a "plan." I can come up with something similar in about a minute. In fact, I will. Here's my "plan":

  • I think federal spending should be capped at 23% of GDP.
  • Interest on the national debt comes to 3% of GDP.
  • Social Security gets 5% of GDP.
  • Medicare gets 8% of GDP.
  • Defense spending gets 3% of GDP.
  • Domestic spending gets 4%.

Pretty good plan, huh? Of course I'd need to pad this out with lots of charts and tables, some quotes from famous people, and a policy proposal or two. Nothing damaging, mind you, mostly just things that hide the fact that I'm not really proposing any specific cuts, only offering a few broad spending caps and (natch) some tax cuts for the rich.

Oh, and his plan doesn't eliminate the deficit, either. Other than that, it's pretty good.

Will Crazy Town Conservatism Backfire?

| Mon Aug. 2, 2010 2:29 PM EDT

Marc Lynch is optimistic that the current conservative meltdown over the Ground Zero mosque — along with their general increase in wild-eyed Muslim bashing — is going to backfire:

It's not just the clear national security imperative to build strong, positive relations with Muslims at home and abroad, and to avoid strengthening al-Qaeda's narrative of a clash of civilizations. It's not just about the security needs in counter-terrorism, where the Muslim-Americans most offended by right-wing bigotry are the main bulwark against radicalization in their communities. It's that the right-wing campaigns are so deeply and fundamentally contrary to American values. America is exceptional for its acceptance of faith in public life and for its tolerance of different religions within a common national identity. While the GOP base may thrill at the escalating anti-Islamic rhetoric, most mainstream Americans will recoil when this hits prime time. It may not look like it right now, but I think that the rising anti-Islamic trend on the right will backfire by highlighting its true extremism, if not downright lunacy.

It makes me happy that someone is out there to talk me down off the ledge. Maybe all this demagoguery will backfire! That would be great, wouldn't it?

The Economics of Plagiarism

| Mon Aug. 2, 2010 1:35 PM EDT

The New York Times, in one of its patented trend stories about the ultra privileged, says that plagiarism is on the rise. Here's the explanation:

Digital technology makes copying and pasting easy, of course. But that is the least of it.

Wait. Just stop. Why is this the least of it? I'm willing to bet large sums of money that this is, in fact, virtually the entire explanation. The internet simply makes way more relevant text available to students and makes it far easier to copy. Compare this obvious explanation to the other claims offered up:

The Internet may also be redefining how students [...] understand the concept of authorship and the singularity of any text or image....“Because you’re not walking into a library, you’re not physically holding the article, which takes you closer to ‘this doesn’t belong to me.’ ”....Undergraduates are less interested in cultivating a unique and authentic identity — as their 1960s counterparts were — than in trying on many different personas, which the Web enables with social networking....The main reason [plagiarism occurs] is because students leave high school unprepared for the intellectual rigors of college writing.

Seriously? College kids are redefining authorship? Old style physical books seem more like they're really written by someone else? Students no longer think of term papers as ways of expressing their unique and authentic identity? High schools suck?

Maybe so. God knows I can't prove any of these theories are wrong. But I'd sure guess that if you make something about a hundred times easier than it used to be, that's a pretty good guess about why that something is on the rise.

Of course, I cheated when I came to this conclusion. The author of the piece, Trip Gabriel, insists that modern kids barely even consider copying from the internet to be wrong. But at the very, tippy end of the article, we get this: "At the University of California, Davis, of the 196 plagiarism cases referred to the disciplinary office last year, a majority did not involve students ignorant of the need to credit the writing of others."

In other words, they know perfectly well that it's wrong. They do it because they're lazy and don't feel like trying to craft sentences of their own. Just like every plagiarist in history. But it would have ruined the story to put that near the top.