Kevin Drum

Raising the Retirement Age

| Fri Jul. 9, 2010 10:01 AM EDT

Via Ezra Klein, Here's a chart from Larry Mishel that's pretty astonishing. It shows that since 1972 the life expectancy of men with low incomes has increased by two years while life expectancy for men with high incomes has increased by more than six years. That fact that the haves are healthier than the have-nots doesn't surprise me, but the magnitude of the difference is pretty stunning.

The context here, unsurprisingly, is Social Security and whether we should raise the retirement age. Obviously, increasing the retirement age to, say, 70, is a much bigger deal for someone likely to live to 79 than it is for someone likely to live to 85. In my book, this is yet another reason not to try to balance Social Security's books by changing the retirement age dramatically.

And we probably don't have to. There are plenty of other ways we could do it instead. And if we do do it, this chart suggests a couple of things: (a) the change should be modest (maybe going from 67 to 68) and (b) it should be accompanied by an explicit acknowledgement that disability retirements will be routinely available at the same age as now to workers who perform body-draining physical labor. If you put these things together it's not clear that this change is even worth pursuing, which I think is the whole point. If we insist on addressing Social Security in the near term, there are better ways of doing it than fiddling with the retirement age.

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Demography is Destiny

| Fri Jul. 9, 2010 6:00 AM EDT

Back in 2002, John Judis and Ruy Teixeira wrote The Emerging Democratic Majority, which argued that demographic trends over the next several decades were set to heavily favor the Democratic Party. Unfortunately, 2002 turned out not to be a great year to make a prediction like that: Republicans gained congressional seats in the midterm elections that year, and two years later George Bush won a second term in the White House in an election that saw Republicans make even further gains in Congress.

But those gains were almost certainly heavily influenced by the increased salience of national security issues following 9/11, and in any case weren't quite as impressive as they seemed at first glance. Bush's reelection, in particular, was a razor thin affair, not the easy victory you'd normally expect for an incumbent running during good economic times. Sure enough, two years later Democrats won back Congress, and then in 2008 took back the presidency and won landslide victories in both the House and Senate.

So how do things look now? Unsurprisingly, Teixeira is pretty bullish on Democratic prospects. In a new report, "Demographic Change and the Future of the Parties," he revisits the trends he first described in 2002 and finds that they're progressing about as he predicted. Minorities have increased their share of the vote by 11 percentage points since 1988 and have become even more strongly pro-Democratic than they were eight years ago. Ditto for white college graduates, professionals, women, and the religiously unaffiliated (the fastest growing "religious" group in the country, he reports).

All of these things bode well for long-term Democratic prospects, but there's one more that might be the most important of all: the Millennial vote. Here's the basic demographic breakdown for young voters in the 2008 election:

This was [] the first year the 18- to 29-year-old age group was drawn exclusively from the Millennial generation, and they gave Obama a whopping 34-point margin, 66 percent to 32 percent....Obama got 60 percent of the youth vote or more in every swing state in the 2008 election with the lone exception of Missouri.

....The 2008 election also saw 18- to 29-year-olds increase their share of voters from 17 percent in 2004 to 18 percent....This figure will steadily rise as more Millennials enter the voting pool....The number of Millennials of voting age will increase by about 4.5 million a year between now and 2018. And in 2020 — the first presidential election in which all Millennials will have reached voting age — this generation will be 103 million strong, of which about 90 million will be eligible voters. Those 90 million Millennial eligible voters will represent just under 40 percent of America’s eligible voters.

But there's more to the story than just this. As Teixeira says, "On social issues, Millennials support gay marriage, take race and gender equality as givens, are tolerant of religious and family diversity, have an open and positive attitude toward immigration, and generally display little interest in fighting over the divisive social issues of the past." That's bad news for the Republican Party, which has shown little willingness to soften its stand on cultural concerns like these — all of which are core hot button issues for its Tea Party base. But the best news is this:

Research suggests that a socialization process occurs that leads young adults to hold onto the party identification and opinions that they developed in their formative years. This is especially true with partisan identification. Party identification is the single strongest predictor of how people vote and tends to stick with individuals once they form an attachment early in their political lives.

Even if the Republican Party eventually softens its views on social issues, it won't make much difference once the Millennials have reached age 30 and their party identification has hardened. If Teixeira is right, by the time this process is over an entire cohort of voters will be heavily pro-Democratic for the rest of their lives.

As it happens, 2010, like 2002, might not be such a great year to make this prediction: a brutal recession and the usual midterm blues are likely to produce big Republican gains this November. In the long term, though, the longer the Republican Party continues to rely on its intolerant, ultraconservative base for support, the more likely they are to write their own obituary for 2020 and beyond.

Unemployment in the Gamma Quadrant

| Thu Jul. 8, 2010 10:11 PM EDT

A "friend" emails to inform me that "you've got to weigh in on Arthur Laffer's op-ed today in the WSJ." Thanks, pal. That's five minutes of my life that I'll never get back.

So why am I caving in to him? Most of Laffer's op-ed is just the usual conservative griping about unemployment insurance: it makes people lazy, it doesn't stimulate demand since "for everyone who is given something there is someone who has that something taken away," and stimulus doesn't work anyway. Plus there's some musing about $150,000 unemployment benefits and two people selling apples to each other. Hardly worth bothering with. But then there's a chart. And that makes the whole thing a must-read. Here's what Laffer says about it:

Common sense and personal experience indicate higher unemployment benefits will make unemployment less unattractive and thereby increase unemployment even in the Great Recession. As the chart nearby clearly shows, since the 1970s there's been a close correlation between increased unemployment benefits and an increase in the unemployment rate. Those who argue that things are different today don't have the data to back up their claims.

Yep: Laffer is seriously suggesting that unemployment benefits, which, according to his own chart, begin rising after unemployment rises, are what cause unemployment to rise. It's groundbreaking stuff, but as an exercise for the reader, can you think of an alternate mechanism to explain why total unemployment benefits paid out might go up when the unemployment rate goes up? Anyone? Take your time. I know it's a chin scratcher.

Even by Laffer/WSJ standards this whole thing is pretty surreal. Are business executives who read the Journal really so gullible that they buy this stuff?

Oscar Grant Killer Found Semi-Guilty

| Thu Jul. 8, 2010 9:00 PM EDT

Here's the latest news on the police shooting front:

A jury found former BART police Officer Johannes Mehserle guilty today of involuntary manslaughter in connection with the New Year's Day 2009 shooting of an unarmed train rider, finding that he had acted with criminal negligence when he fired a single shot into Oscar Grant's back at the Fruitvale Station in Oakland.

Of course, this understates the case a wee bit. Mehserle, along with several others BART cops, had Grant pinned face first on the ground when he very deliberately pulled out his gun and shot Grant in the back. Mehserle's defense is that he meant to pull out his taser but mistakenly pulled out his gun instead. This is, needless to say, pretty hard to accept, and there's little question that there's a jury anywhere in the country that would have bought this story from anyone who wasn't a police officer. You can judge for yourself in the cell phone video taken by a witness (the clearest view starts around the 1:45 mark).

I hardly even know what to say about this. I wasn't in court and I wasn't on the jury, so I didn't hear all the evidence. But for chrissake. Look at the video. Mehserle didn't look confused and modern tasers don't feel much like service revolvers. And it's not as if he was acting under extreme duress. At most there was a brief and perfunctory struggle, after which Mehserle calmly raised himself up while Grant was pinned to the ground, drew his revolver, and shot him. The only thing that even remotely makes Mehserle's story believable is that doing what he did is just flat out insane. It doesn't make sense even if he were a stone racist and half crazy as well.

The jury can say what it wants, but it still looks to me like Mehserle decided on the spur of the moment to shoot Grant. I don't know why, and no explanation really makes sense. But he's a white cop and the jury apparently concluded that Grant was just black riffraff. The whole thing is just appalling.

What Spies Do

| Thu Jul. 8, 2010 8:23 PM EDT

Bruce Bartlett recalls his sole experience with Soviet spying: a fellow named Valery Sorokin who was a "counselor" at the Soviet embassy and wanted to come and chat with him about economic policy in the early 80s:

I remembered all this some years later when I was working at the Treasury Department and was on the distribution for some CIA raw material relating to economic issues. Almost all of it was worthless. It involved conversations some CIA agent had with a prominent foreign businessman or economist relaying information that could easily be gleaned from that day’s Financial Times.

Suddenly, I understood what Sorokin had been up to. He could have written a memo to his bosses just regurgitating what was in the daily papers, news magazines and other public sources, but that wouldn’t have been very spy-like. It undoubtedly sounded so much better if he could relay the same identical information but say that it had been secured from a high-level congressional staffer. That’s what spies do.

Eventually, I took myself off the distribution for the CIA material. It was a pain to handle and almost never offered insights that couldn’t be found in public sources. But I suppose it provided employment for American versions of Dr. Sorokin working in London, Tokyo and elsewhere.

In a slightly off-center way, this sounds an awful lot like Daniel Ellsberg's experience with classified information. It kinda makes you wonder if we even need the CIA, doesn't it?

How Long Will the Economy Suck?

| Thu Jul. 8, 2010 1:55 PM EDT

You can make a pretty good case that the U.S. economy won't truly recover until we finish deleveraging from the credit bubble of the aughts. Stuart Staniford takes a quick look at several methods of estimating how long that's going to take, and comes up with the following: 15-25 years, 13 years, 10+ years, and 10-15 years. "All of these methods have problems," he acknowledges, "and you can pick your poison. What they all have in common though is this: deleveraging will take at least a decade, and it could easily take 15-20 years. In the meantime, the economy is likely to be pretty choppy at best."

Anybody got a problem with this? No? Then back to work you slackers.

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Political Incorrectness in the Media

| Thu Jul. 8, 2010 12:50 PM EDT

I didn't get to this yesterday, but better late than never. After 20 years as a CNN producer, Octavia Nasr was let go on Wednesday for sending out this tweet:

Andrew Sullivan writes: "Froomkin was fired for opposing torture a little too passionately; Weigel was forced out because his private emails revealed he was not acceptable to the partisan right; Frum is cut off from conservative blogads funding; Moulitsas is barred from MSNBC for criticizing Joe Scarborough; and Octavia Nasr is fired for offending the pro-Israel lobby over a tweet expressing sadness at the death of a Hezbollah leader." Glenn Greenwald reels off a list of his own and asks: "What each of these firing offenses have in common is that they angered and offended the neocon Right....Have there ever been any viewpoint-based firings of establishment journalists by The Liberal Media because of comments which offended liberals? None that I can recall." And David Carr worries: "as a journo who tweets, gotta say this trend toward career-ending posts is a might disturbing."

Nasr herself calls her tweet an "error of judgment" and acknowledges that "It is no secret that Sayyed Mohammad Hussein Fadlallah hated with a vengeance the United States government and Israel." But then she explains why she said what she did:

I used the words "respect" and "sad" because to me as a Middle Eastern woman, Fadlallah took a contrarian and pioneering stand among Shia clerics on woman's rights. He called for the abolition of the tribal system of "honor killing." He called the practice primitive and non-productive. He warned Muslim men that abuse of women was against Islam.

....Through his outspoken Friday sermons and his regularly updated website, Fadlallah had a platform to spread what many considered a more moderate voice of Shia Islam than what was coming out of Iran. Immensely popular in Lebanon among the various religious groups, he also had followers across the region including in Saudi Arabia, the UAE, Kuwait, Bahrain and even as far as Morocco in northern Africa.

Sayyed Fadlallah. Revered across borders yet designated a terrorist. Not the kind of life to be commenting about in a brief tweet. It's something I deeply regret.

It's easy to understand why Nasr was let go, but the end result is a mainstream media ever more curled up in a fetal crouch, afraid of its reporters and producers ever saying an unguarded word that might offend someone. The age of unedited blogs and real-time tweets is going to put an end to that one way or another, though, and the sooner the better. In the meantime, as with any culture in transition, there are going to be some ugly casualties. Nasr is one of them.

Obama and the Bankers

| Thu Jul. 8, 2010 12:21 PM EDT

Mike Konczal captures perfectly some of the concrete ways in progressives are right to be pretty dissatisfied with the Obama administration over financial reform:

I do think Treasury could have moved this bill in a lot of ways. They set the terms under which the debate would unfold. And whenever they got involved with Congress, they pushed for less structural reforms. They pushed for the solution that embraced the status quo with arms wide open.

Examples? Off the top of my head, ones with a paper trail: They fought the Collins amendment for quality of bank capital, fought leverage requirements like a 15-to-1 cap, fought prefunding the resolution mechanism, fought Section 716 spinning out swap desks, removed foreign exchange swaps and introduced end user exemption from derivative language between the Obama white paper and the House Bill, believed they could have gotten the SAFE Banking Amendment to break up the banks but didn’t try, pushed against the full Audit the Fed and encouraged the Scott Brown deal.

That's it in a nutshell. The final shape of the financial reform bill, even after it got watered down in conference, is decent enough to be well worth passing. But it's decent almost entirely because of amendments that were tacked on during the final two months of debate, not because the White House tried to introduce a decent bill in the first place. And to make it worse, as Mike notes, the White House actually opposed most of the amendments that improved financial reform from a D to a B-.

In one sense, it doesn't matter who was responsible for what. The final bill is the result of a complex dance between the White House, the Treasury, and Congress, and it's silly to give too much (or too little) credit to any one of them. But the fact remains that Obama's team has been pretty weak on financial reform from the start. Whether this was from political miscalculation or genuine conviction I don't know, but neither one reflects well on them.

Of course, none of this changes the fact that Obama is still a business-hating, job-killing, government-loving, socialist wannabe. But he would have been that no matter what. He should have just done the right thing and not worried too much about it.

Quote of the Day: About Face in Alaska

| Thu Jul. 8, 2010 12:00 PM EDT

From 20-year-old Levi Johnston, apologizing for remarks he made when he was 19:

To the Palin family in general and to Sarah Palin in particular, please accept my regrets and forgive my youthful indiscretion.

That's sort of funny, but the rest of his statement is just creepy, like one of those things the Soviets used to extort out of supposed dissidents. I wonder what the Palins have on him?

Can START Get to the Finish Line?

| Thu Jul. 8, 2010 11:22 AM EDT

Dan Drezner, after pointing out that the START nuclear arms treaty is supported by virtually every foreign policy bigshot on both sides of the aisle, says this:

If the Obama administration can't get Senate ratification of START despite the bipartisan support of the foreign policy community, well, it suggests that the foreign policy community doesn't have the political capital it once did. I posited earlier this year that START would pass because it was pretty unobtrusive and wouldn't play a big role in political campaigns. If GOP senators think differently, however, then you can kiss any foreign policy initiative that requires congressional approval bye-bye.

Best to start puckering up, I'd say. I'd love to be wrong about this, but the Tea Party base of the Republican Party, like every outbreak of right-wing extremism for the past century, is dead set against any treaty that limits the U.S. in any way, dead set against cooperation with Russia of any kind, and dead set against anything that gives up American "sovereignty." So that's that. I don't think there are more than five or six Republican senators at this point who are willing to buck the tea partiers, and it will take more than that to pass this thing. If Obama submits it as an executive agreement, which only requires 60 votes, maybe it's got a chance, but it's hard to see how it gets to 67 in the current environment.

But maybe I'm wrong. As Dan says, START is a "modest treaty that yields modest gains," and maybe there are still a few more foreign policy pragmatists in the GOP ranks than I think. I'm not sure I'd want to bet money on it, though.