Kevin Drum

Ideology vs. Self Interest

| Sat Oct. 30, 2010 5:21 PM EDT

Bruce Bartlett thinks Republicans will have to start delivering the goods if they take over Congress next week. Matt Yglesias disagrees, citing research that voters always blame the president for whatever happens, not Congress. But:

Things look different in interest-group terms. CEOs do want their personal income taxes lower, do want the capital gains taxes they pay lower, and do want to be able to pollute and violate labor law with impunity. But they presumably don’t want to see the economy fall into a depression and Speaker Boehner may be “responsible” in their eyes.

You'd think so, wouldn't you? But the business community has long demonstrated a remarkable ability to value ideology over actual results. Think about it: if congressional Republicans had been in charge over the past couple of years, there would have been no TARP, no stimulus, and no auto rescue. In other words, the economy would be in truly harrowing shape and businesses would be failing left and right. What's more, simple self interest dictates that going forward the business community ought to be clamoring for monetary easing and more fiscal stimulus, something that Republicans are dead set against. But they aren't. In fact, they're planning to vote in massive numbers for Republicans. They're basically content with anemic economic growth.

I'm not quite sure what accounts for this. Opposing regulation I get. No one wants to be regulated. Ditto for higher taxes, even if they're pretty modest. But why do corporate chieftans oppose true national healthcare even though it would almost certainly make their lives easier and make them more globally competitive? Why do they oppose cap-and-trade even though its effects are modest and the alternative is more intrusive EPA regulations? Why do they oppose fiscal stimulus even though it would spur the economy and be good for business?

It's a mystery. I guess they truly don't believe that stimulus spending will help. Or, maybe they don't believe that anything the government does helps the economy. It's hard to say. But whatever happens, I'll bet they won't hold Speaker Boehner responsible for it. They'll blame it on stifling regulations or bad trade policy or too much government spending or bad currency management. Something that's Obama's fault. It'll always be Obama's fault.

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Friday Dog Blogging - 29 October 2010

| Fri Oct. 29, 2010 3:06 PM EDT

Surprise! The cats get this week off as I showcase Rupert and Digby, who belong to my sister-in-law and her partner. Digby (on the left) is, I'm informed, a "Heinz-57 with a terrier personality." Rupert, on the right, is a poodle mix.

Enjoy this while you can, dog lovers. Inkblot and Domino will be back next week, demanding that Republicans pass the Two Cans of Food Every Night Act of 2011 just as soon as they take office. They're billing it as a deficit reduction measure because — well, why not? Isn't everything a deficit reduction measure these days?

The Risk of Default

| Fri Oct. 29, 2010 2:40 PM EDT

Pretty much everyone agrees that Republicans won't do anything serious to reduce the deficit if they win control of the House next week. After all, they plainly don't care about deficits except as a useful partisan cudgel. Bruce Bartlett agrees, but has an even more exotic fear:

As I have previously warned, I am very fearful that it will be impossible to raise the debt limit, which would bring about a default and real, honest-to-God bankruptcy — something many Tea Party-types have openly called for in an insane belief that this will somehow or other impose fiscal discipline on out-of-control government spending without forcing them to vote either for spending cuts or tax increases.

....Republicans should savor the period from Election Day to the first day of the new Congress on January 3, 2011. That will be as good as it gets for them; afterwards, it’s all downhill once they have to act, take responsibility, and can no longer blame Democrats for everything bad that happens anywhere. That goes for their allies in the business community, who naively assume that every action of the last two years that they opposed will magically disappear. And it goes double for the Tea Partiers, who have never had to take responsibility for anything. It’s a whole new ballgame in January.

At this point, I'm not sure I'd put anything past them. One thing might stop this doomsday scenario, though. The Republican base — big business and the rich, not the tea party — have made it crystal clear that they'll fight to their last breath to keep from taking any responsibility for the mess they made over the past decade. However, that same base probably genuinely fears the possibility of a default. They're greedy and narcissistic, not insane. So they'll probably rein things in just short of that. A demonstration of who's boss is one thing, but actually putting the assets of the rich at risk is quite another.

Chart of the Day: Democratic Losses in 2010

| Fri Oct. 29, 2010 1:36 PM EDT

So how should Democrats expect to do this year? Douglas Hibbs has one of the most famous equations for forecasting midterm elections, and it has four terms for predicting the partisan division in the House:

The in-party is expected to win a baseline constant of 62 seats, plus a number of seats equal to about 62% of the number won at the previous on-year election (the incumbency effect), minus around 1.4 seats for every percentage point of the sitting president'’s vote margin in the previous on-year election (the balance effect), plus almost 10 seats for every percentage point of growth in per capita real disposable personal income over the congressional term.

In other words, taking an educated guess that income growth in Q3 will be -3% and therefore income growth for the entire congressional term will clock in at 0.1%:

62 + .62*256 -1.4*7.4 + 0.1*9.7 = 211.33 Democratic seats

I have helpfully put this into chart format below, extending Hibbs's chart for 1950-2006 to include next week's election. Why does this matter? As Jon Chait says, it should anchor our expectations and provide a healthy dose of skepticism toward the various narratives that pundits will trot out after the election to explain things:

The point is not that structural factors determine everything, and that policies or communication or other tactical decisions have no impact. The point is to center the discussion around a realistic baseline.....It's worth keeping in mind beforehand a clear sense of what sort of result we would expect if the president's policies and political strategy made no difference at all. That's about a 45 seat loss....If you want to have the "what did Obama do wrong" argument, you first need to establish what "wrong" would look like.

Chait thinks that the Hibbs prediction of 45 seats is too low, but I'm willing to go ahead and accept it. Basically, it provides a reasonable baseline. If Democrats lose 50 seats, it's fair to say they did something tactically wrong. But that "something wrong" only cost them five seats. Aside from that, they blew it by not being more aggressive about stimulating the economy. Unfortunately, that mistake was mostly made during Obama's first year in office. By the time 2010 rolled around, there wasn't much left they could do about that.

Our Stagnant Pie

| Fri Oct. 29, 2010 12:37 PM EDT

Doug Mataconis takes a look at today's awful GDP figures and concludes that we're headed for a long stretch of low growth and high unemployment. He's not happy about what this means for our political future:

There’s a reason that politics in the 1950s gave us men like Eisenhower and Stevenson, and there’s a reason that politics in 2010s are giving us Sarah Palin, Glenn Beck, Alan Grayson, and the 24/7/365 cable “news” culture, and I would submit that much of it is related to the fact that people are beginning to believe that they are going to have to fight over pieces of a pie that isn’t going to grow nearly fast enough to sustain the standard of living we’ve become used to.

On my good days I think this is simply the normal pessimism that takes over during a recession. (And yes, we're still in a recession in all but the most technical definition of the term.) On the other hand, household deleveraging still has a long ways to go, house prices probably still have a ways to drop, income stagnation is going to remain a fact of life as long as unemployment is high, and our political system is dominated by people who plainly have no intention of doing anything about any of this. So on my bad days I agree with Doug. There's no reason things have to be this way, but we sure seem to have lost the will to change them much.

The Passive Voice Strikes Again

| Fri Oct. 29, 2010 11:49 AM EDT

Here is David Brooks this morning:

Obama came to be defined by his emergency responses to the fiscal crisis — by the things he had to do, not by the things he wanted to do. Then he got defined as an orthodox, big government liberal who lacks deep roots in American culture.

....Over the next two years, Obama will have to show that he is a traditionalist on social matters and a center-left pragmatist on political ones. Culturally, he will have to demonstrate that even though he comes from an unusual background, he is a fervent believer in the old-fashioned bourgeois virtues: order, self-discipline, punctuality and personal responsibility.

Italics mine. Reading this, you'd think it was just some freak of chance that Obama has come to be identified as someone who "lacks deep roots in American culture." You'd also think it might actually be true, since Brooks simply states it as fact. But perhaps we should bring some of that famous conservative concern for agency and responsibility to bear here. Why do so many people seem to believe that Obama lacks deep roots in American culture? Where does this story come from? Did Obama himself, who would risk being a near parody of old-fashioned bourgeois virtues if he were any more orderly, self-disciplined, punctual, and responsible, do anything to deserve it?

The answers here are pretty obvious. But you won't hear a peep about any of them from David Brooks this morning.

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Do the Rich Need Coddling?

| Fri Oct. 29, 2010 6:00 AM EDT

A couple of weeks ago I sort of vaguely intended to write a bit about the extreme sensitivity of the American business community. I had just read someone (I forget who) saying that he had been out in the world chatting with business folks and had fully expected their anger with Barack Obama to rate about an 8 out of 10. But no! It was 10 out of 10. They were in an absolute frenzy of combined rage (over what he was doing to them) and fear (over what he might say about them if they dared to criticize him publicly).

Needless to say, this seemed crazy to me. On a substantive front, after he took office Obama continued George Bush's rescue of the banking system, boosted the economy by passing a stimulus bill, and saved untold thousands of businesses by rescuing GM and Chrysler. His healthcare reform bill was so business friendly it's a wonder the industry didn't keel over in hypoglycemic shock after it was passed. On the rhetorical front, he's taken a few modest shots at the financial industry, but not much more. So what were they all so apoplectic about?

But then I stopped and decided there was no point. If I asked, business folks would say they were afraid to invest because of Obama's blizzard of new regulations. They'd say they were afraid he was going to raise their taxes. They'd say he had somehow screwed up the banking sector so that they could no longer get loans the way they used to. They'd say they were afraid of cap-and-trade and card check, which Obama supported even though they both went nowhere. Looking at the big picture, they'd claim the administration is squeezing them on all sides because its actions have resulted in slow hiring, higher taxes, impaired lending, and further limits to individuals' ability to deploy capital in business ventures (whether their own or other people's).

Or, as John Gapper put it earlier this week, quoting the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, Obama has "vilified industries while embarking on an ill-advised course of government expansion, major tax increases, massive deficits and job-destroying regulations." Gapper himself says there's some truth to this: "Mr Obama has failed to understand or communicate the role big business plays in remoulding the economy and creating highly skilled and highly-paid jobs. Unlike Bill Clinton, the previous Democratic president, he sounds as if he thinks multinationals do little but suck work out of the US."

And Gapper's evidence? As Ezra Klein and Matt Yglesias point out, precisely one thing: Obama's criticism of large companies for using tax breaks to ship jobs overseas. That's it. Something that's virtually a staple of American politics. Obama is following in the footsteps of thousands when he complains about this, including plenty of Republicans when they're in a tight election campaign.

What's remarkable about all this is that Obama is, patently, not anti-business. All of the corporate complaints above, when you dig an inch below the surface, amount to lashing out at phantasms. However, although Obama isn't anti-business, it is fair to say that he's not especially business friendly. And after decades of almost literally getting their every heart's desire from Republican presidents and congresses, this has come as something as a shock to the corporate community. When Obama puts a tax break in the stimulus bill, it's aimed mainly at the middle class, not the rich. When he hires a labor secretary, it's someone who actually thinks labor laws should be enforced. When he says he wants to pass a healthcare reform bill, he actually does it. (Its impact on big business is close to zero, but no matter.) There's no evidence at all that Obama wants to punish big business, but at the same time it's quite plain that he cares much more about the middle class than he does about the rich.

And that's pretty hard for them to take. So they're apoplectic. On a scale of 1 to 10, he's a ten. Merely refusing to coddle the business community endlessly is all it takes these days.

Quote of the Day:

| Fri Oct. 29, 2010 12:11 AM EDT

From Charles Peters, founder of the Washington Monthly:

The lesson of history is that private enterprise can do great things, but you have to watch it like a hawk.

Words to live by.

Do Sugary Sodas Make You Fat?

| Thu Oct. 28, 2010 9:11 PM EDT

Over at the Volokh Conspiracy, Jonathan Adler writes:

Politicizing Soda Science

Today’s NYT reports on how New York City’s health commissioner pressured his staff to create a scary anti-obesity ad campaign, featuring this ad, even if it meant stretching the available scientific evidence on the potential health consequences of drinking a can of soda per day. In the end, they produced an ad that was “defensible” because, as one participant in the discussions put it, the ad’s language was “broad enough to get away with.”

Now, there are a bunch of things you might say about this right from the start. Maybe governments shouldn't be in the business of running nanny state ads about personal nutrition. Maybe this particular ad was disgusting and shouldn't have been released. Maybe obesity isn't really that big a deal in the first place. But those weren't the issues at stake. Rather, it was this single sentence in the ad:

Drinking 1 can of soda a day can make you 10 pounds fatter a year.

What, I thought, could be wrong with that? A can of sugared soda contains about 150 calories, and adding 150 calories a day to your diet would almost certainly produce a ten-pound weight gain over the course of a year or so. There are some caveats, of course:

  • If you cut out 150 calories elsewhere, you won't gain any weight.
  • If you exercise more, you won't gain any weight.
  • Your exact weight gain will depend on your age, current weight, etc.
  • If you have a miracle metabolism, you might not gain any weight at all.

This all seems pretty obvious, and while you'd probably mention it in a longer piece, it hardly seems necessary in a 30-second spot. But it turns out the scientists, especially Michael Rosenbaum of Columbia, seemed to think it should all be included. The ad, he said, was "misleading in that there is no reference to energy output changes."

So I'm curious: what do you all think of this? I'm open to argument here, but it seems crazy to me, less a politicization of science from the health commissioner than a case of geekdom run amok among the scientists. I mean, if you can't tell people that adding a bunch of calories to your diet will make you gain weight, what can you tell them?

POSTSCRIPT: And while I'm at this, can I complain once again about how journalistic conventions can ruin a story? It's actually hard to tell exactly what happened here because the reporter insisted on "adding value" by not relating things in a simple chronological fashion. Nor does she tell us what the original sentence they were arguing about was. It's a real mess.

UPDATE: Via comments, I do see one problem with this ad that I didn't notice before. The phrase "10 pounds fatter a year" might lead you to believe that you're going to gain ten pounds years after year. In fact, you'd gain (about) ten pounds and then just stay there.

This interpretation didn't occur to me when I saw the ad. However, it's a plausible one. Something like "10 pounds fatter in a year" might be better.

Chart of the Day: Texting

| Thu Oct. 28, 2010 4:56 PM EDT

Here's the latest on texting:

The Nielsen Company analyzed mobile usage data among teens in the United States for the second quarter of 2010 (April 2010 – June 2010). No one texts more than teens (age 13-17), especially teen females, who send and receive an average of 4,050 texts per month. Teen males also outpace other male age groups, sending and receiving an average of 2,539 texts.

I wonder how this really breaks down? The obvious headline result is that teen girls send a text every 6 minutes of every waking hour. But they probably don't. More likely, it comes in bursts: a couple of texts an hour most of the time, but 40 or 50 an hour during serious texting times.

That's my guess, anyway. What say you, parents of teenagers? Do your kids text constantly, or do they do it mostly in bursts? (Via Jon Mandle.)