Anderson Cooper's Debate Gaffe

Jonathan Bernstein suggests that the real loser of last night's debate wasn't Rick Perry or Herman Cain or Mitt Romney. It was CNN's Anderson Cooper:

There are plenty of fact-checkers around, and I don’t really consider it part of my job here to think about where candidates messed up, especially since a lot of their factually incorrect statements are just playing to their audience, and you sort of have to expect a lot of that. But Anderson Cooper, the CNN moderator, has no excuse: his claim that 47% of American pay no taxes was inexcusable. Just terrible. The correct stat is that 47% of US households don’t pay federal income taxes, which is very different. It’s bad when politicians get basic factual stuff wrong; it’s terrible when CNN does. To me at least, the debate had a clear loser, and it was Anderson Cooper and CNN for that question.

Repeat something often enough, and everyone ends up believing it. The tea party should feel proud of its handiwork, and Cooper should be ashamed for getting sucked in by it.

For the record: About 47% of Americans pay no federal income tax. This is generally because they're poor, elderly, or have low incomes and qualify for child tax credits. Details here. But even the poorest still pay plenty of taxes: about 13% of their incomes, according to the conservative Tax Foundation. This is because they pay excise taxes, payroll taxes, sales taxes, property taxes, and various other taxes. Details here.

The Harrowing Politics of Mortgage Relief

Last night I briefly noted that among the Republican candidates at Tuesday's debate, "Nobody even pretended to have anything to say about housing." If you want to know what I was talking about, Dave Weigel rounds up the responses under the headline, "The GOP Candidates on Foreclosures: A Study in Mush." That's about right. And that's true for both fringe candidates and front runners alike. Tim Murphy has more on Mitt "Let It Hit Bottom" Romney here.

In fairness, President Obama hasn't exactly been a profile in courage on this issue either. But the Republican responses are a grim reminder of just how bad the politics of housing are. Voters may say they hate bailing out the banks — and they do! — but they hate bailing out the profligate next-door neighbors even more. No politician in America seriously wants to risk voter wrath by doing that.

Tonight's Debate Roundup

Everyone took shots at Herman Cain's 9-9-9 plan tonight, but they mostly didn't draw much blood. Cain just out-blustered them, and he was helped by the fact that the rest of the field had a hard time really going after him hard. After all, how can a bunch of conservatives attack a plan that's basically conservative flat-taxism on steroids? It's especially hard when Cain is apparently willing to flatly lie about the fact that it would raise taxes on the poor and middle class by a lot.

(Cain kept claiming that a new report on his website showed that the poor and middle class wouldn't see their taxes go up. That apparently prompted enough excitement to crash his site. When it came back up, I found the report, which doesn't appear to include any kind of distributional analysis at all.)

In other news, Rick Perry was awake this week! Maybe a little too awake. His constant interruptions of Romney early in the debate didn't make him look good, and his obviously calculated resurrection of the 2007 foofaraw over Romney's gardening service employing illegal immigrants carried the stink of desperation to me. Perry didn't seem to have the audience on his side during these episodes, either.

Romney did fine, as usual, but looked a little more aloof than usual. But maybe I'm just imagining that.

Aside from that there wasn't much new. Perry wants to defund the UN. Everyone wants to slash foreign aid. Nobody even pretended to have anything to say about housing. The whole tone of the debate was testier than usual, something that will probably get even worse as we get closer to the primaries.

Those are just my initial reactions, of course, and as usual, I have no idea whether actual conservatives are likely to react the same way. Probably not.

UPDATE: Andrew Sprung's reaction:

There were so many lies, slanders, panderings, nostrums and nonsensical statements that it makes me weary to even think of itemizing them. I was happy, however, to note that this seven-headed monster spent a fair amount of energy biting itself — that is, several candidates accused each other of lying, flip-flopping, being unworthy of trust. Santorum accused Perry of being for TARP before he was against it — when in fact, it seems, Perry simply made good use in 2009 of his gutless equivocation in October 2008. Perry histrionically rehashed the 2007 debate charge that Romney hired illegal immigrants to mow his lawn and then lied about it, for which Romney's defense boiled down to "it's so hard to get good help these days" — and Perry, in a shoutfest, flat-out accused him of lying. Herman Cain did the job on himself without much help, claiming that he didn't say(or mean) three things that he's said quite recently — that the U.S. should put up an electrified border fence, that it should negotiate with al Qaeda if they took a U.S. hostage, and that the unemployed are to blame for their predicament. Michele Bachmann used every question as an occasion to demonize Obama and was duly ignored by everyone else.

Another edifying evening. I'd like to think that after a few more such victories Romney will be finished (for the general). Pretty to think so.

And David Corn:

The most interesting assaults of the night came from Mitt Romney—and they were aimed at Rick Perry. Again and again, he manhandled the Texas governor, who is in single-digits in recent voter surveys. Every time, Perry toke a poke at Romney—on jobs in Massachusetts, on using a gardening firm that hired undocumented immigrants, on whatever—Romney was ready for him and slammed him in response much more effectively.

....Romney is worried about a Perry comeback. I didn't clock it, but it sure felt as if Romney spent more time with Perry in his sights than Cain. This would suggest that Team Romney considers Cain still the flavor of the nanosecond who will eventually flame out....Perry, though down and out (and downer and outer after this debate), could still revive—if only because he has the bucks to rebuild. He does have the money to wage a monumental ad campaign against Romney.

I agree. It's still a Romney-Perry race, and Romney knows it.

The Culture Wars Are Everywhere

Dave Roberts writes today about a federal program that has no net cost, supports the fastest growing industry in the country, leverages private capital at more than 4:1, and supports tens of thousands of new jobs:

So you'd think this would be a home run, right? At a time when jobs are at the top of every politician's mind, surely a bit of low-cost economic stimulus that doesn't increase the deficit and leverages tons of private capital and creates tens of thousands of jobs can serve as the rare locus of bipartisan cooperation. Right?

Except the industry in question is the solar industry. And because this industry involves clean energy rather than, I dunno, tractor parts, it has been sucked into conservatives' endless culture war. Rather than lining up to support the recession's rare economic success story, Republicans are trying to use the failure of a single company — Solyndra — as a wedge to crush support for the whole industry.

....This. Is. Insane. Right in front of our noses is what everyone says they want: a growing industry, creating jobs, leveraging economic stimulus into enormous private-sector investment. And Republicans are going to let it die! And Democrats are going to let them!

Even after following this stuff pretty closely for the past decade, it never fails to gobsmack me the way conservatives turn everything into a culture war issue. Because Dave is right: solar power is a great industry on pretty much any metric. It's growing, it's clean, and it provides lots of good jobs. At a minimum, it's as good as any other industry, and repurposing solar tax credits into solar cash grants in order to help a broader array of small businesses is sort of a no-brainer.

But Republicans are against it. Why? The logic seems to be (a) global warming is a myth, (b) therefore anything associated with global warming is bad, (c) solar power is associated with fighting global warming, so (d) solar power is bad. Or something like that. I certainly can't think of any other reason why Republicans are so unanimously in love with subsidies for nuclear and coal and so passionately opposed to renewable energy in nearly every form. It's as if supporting renewables is an implicit admission that clean energy is a good thing, which in turn is an implicit admission that global warming is real. And since that's a left-wing hippie thing to believe in, they can't support renewables.

Chart of the Day: The Cost of 9-9-9

The Tax Policy Center has done yet another analysis of Herman Cain's 9-9-9 plan, and guess what? Unless you're really rich, your taxes will go up! If you earn, say, $50,000 per year, you currently pay about 14.3% of your income in federal taxes. Under Cain's plan, you'll pay 23.8%. Whee!

And if you make the big bucks? Well, millionaires currently pay about 32.9% of their income in federal taxes. Under Cain's plan, they'll pay 17.9%. Ka-ching!

I actually think the TPC analysis is probably kinder to Cain's plan than it should be. But in any case, this is certainly the minimum damage that middle-class families can expect to see. So what do you think Cain's response will be when he gets asked about this tonight? I'm putting my money on "They're wrong." Other possibilities are "It's just a proposal, we can always tweak it," and "I was just joking."

UPDATE: Yep, Cain's answer was "They're wrong," almost verbatim. Plus some more nonsense about apples and oranges.

Debate Preview: The Electrified Fence

Last week, Herman Cain twice suggested that we should build an electrified fence along the border with Mexico that would kill anyone who touched it. On Sunday he reversed course, insisting he had just been joking, even though video of his remarks makes it pretty clear that he was perfectly serious. Today, he reversed course again, admitting that his original remarks weren't a joke at all.

This is a pretty obvious subject for tonight's Republican debate. You can see it coming a mile away and every candidate should have a pretty well-prepared response about it. Two questions, then. First: What do you think Herman Cain will say about this? Second: with plenty of time to prepare, what do you think Rick Perry will say about it? Will he be able to string together 30 seconds worth of coherent thoughts on the issue? Or will he screw up completely as he usually does?

Republicans Getting a Pass on Their Jobs Plans

Greg Sargent wants to know why the media is giving Republicans a huge pass on their various "jobs plans":

Obama and the Senate GOP have both introduced jobs plans. In reporting on the Senate plan, many news organizations described it as a “GOP jobs plan.” And that’s fine — Rand Paul said it would create five million of them. But few if any of the same news orgs that amplified the GOP offering of a jobs plan are making any serious effort to determine whether independent experts think there’s anything to it. And independent experts don’t think there’s anything to it — they think the GOP jobs plan would not create any jobs in the near term, and could even hurt the economy. By contrast, they do think the Obama plan would create jobs and lead to growth.

Why aren’t these facts in every single news story about the ongoing jobs debate? Why aren’t they being broadcast far and wide?

I’m trying to think of the reasons for this....[One] possible reason: Reporters and editors don’t take the GOP jobs plan seriously enough to have it evaluated by independent experts. But if this is the case, isn’t this something readers and viewers should know about? News consumers who read or view stories about the GOP jobs plan without being told this vital information risk coming away thinking that both sides are making an equally serious contribution to the debate. If reporters and editors don’t believe this, isn’t that pertinent info for their customers?

I plucked out that last reason (Greg actually tosses out three possibilities) because it rings the truest to me. I suspect that reporters are simply so used to Republicans embracing nonsense that they evaluate it on a whole different plane than they do "serious" proposals. GOP campaign plans are treated more as optics than as actual policy, as ways to signal a candidate's conservative bona fides more than as blueprints for actual legislation.

But Greg is right: this should stop. There's no reason to give these guys a pass on their laughable jobs plans that virtually no one thinks will create any actual jobs. It won't be easy, since most of the candidates (with good reason) refuse to release enough detail to make it easy to assess their plans, but it's still doable. And the press should do it.

Health Care and the 2012 Election

This isn't exactly big news or anything, but the Los Angeles Times reports today on just how much of a litmus test repeal of Obamacare has become for Republican activists:

Republican activists, increasingly optimistic they can win the White House and Senate next year, are beginning to lay the groundwork for a multi-pronged campaign in 2013 to roll back President Obama's sweeping healthcare overhaul. The push includes an effort to pressure Republican candidates to commit to using every available tool to fully repeal the law, a tactic pioneered by conservative activist Grover Norquist, who made an anti-tax pledge de rigeur for GOP politicians.

…Some activists are so concerned that Republicans will miss their chance that they are trying to lock GOP candidates into using a controversial parliamentary tactic known as budget reconciliation to circumvent Senate Democratic opposition to repeal. "This needs to be a threshold question for both presidential and Senate candidates," said Michael Needham, head of Heritage Action for America, an advocacy group affiliated with the Heritage Foundation that supports many tea party positions.

I've been trying to think whether anything like this has really happened before. Has repeal of a major new law ever been the subject of such a feeding frenzy during a presidential campaign? There have always been small blocs that were dedicated to repeal of, say, Social Security or Medicare or the ADA, but I can't remember such a position ever being front and center for an entire party as its top concern.

A lot of progressives were pretty unhappy that the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act ended up so watered down before it passed. There was no public option! For that reason and others, enthusiasm among the Democratic base for Obama's reelection is pretty muted right now. But my guess is that it won't stay that way: Once Republicans have an actual candidate nominated, the lefty base will find its outrage again. I sure hope so, anyway.

Because watered down or not, Obamacare is our best hope for national health care anytime in the next decade or two. It's not nearly as bad as its critics think, and in any case, it's something that can be built on. But if it's repealed? Then you can say sayonara to health care reform for at least a decade, and probably more. At a minimum, nothing serious will happen until we have a Democratic president and something close to a filibuster-proof majority in the Senate again. I'd put that at 20 years away.

That's really what the 2012 election is about. All the shouting aside, neither party is going to end up doing anything very different about the economy. Nor is there really all that big a difference between the parties on foreign policy these days. No, the single biggest accomplishment of the past decade has been the passage of Obamacare, and the single biggest difference between the parties going forward is whether or not it gets repealed, ending health care reform for another decade or two. In the end, that might not be enough to get the liberal base fired up, but it should be.

Front page image: TalkRadioNews/Flickr

So how fuel efficient are modern passenger cars? Stuart Staniford passes along a link to the latest EPA mileage report, which both clarifies things and adds a bit to the murk.

First the clarification. Table 1 in the report provides an "adjusted composite" figure of 25.8 mpg for model year 2010 cars. This number is production weighted, so it reflects the actual distribution of cars sold.

But wait! For the past decade the EPA report has published "adjusted" — i.e., real world — numbers because the "laboratory" EPA mileage, which is the number you see on a car's sticker, is notoriously over-optimistic. For 2010, the average laboratory 55/45 combined mileage was 32.7, which kinda sorta explains the BTS figure of 33.7 from the previous post. Close enough for government work, anyway. (Though this still sounds pretty high to me. It's based on average city mileage of 27.6 and average highway mileage of 42.3, but according to DOE's search site, there were a grand total of eight cars in 2010 that got lab EPA highway mileage over 42 mpg. So it's hardly credible that the fleet highway average was 42.3 even using the lab EPA values.)

So I'm still a little confused. Still, if you're looking for a real-world, production weighted fleet average for gas mileage, the best current estimate is 25.8 mpg for model year 2010. Now you know.

How Fuel Efficient are Modern Passenger Cars?

Warning: Obsessive data post to follow, probably of minimal interest to most normal people.

Brad Plumer has an interesting item today suggesting that once you account for all the electricity used to produce gasoline, electric cars not only use less gasoline than regular cars, they use less electricity too.1 Interesting! But something else in his post caught my eye: according to the Bureau of Transportation Statistics, the average new passenger car in 2010 got about 33.7 miles per gallon. Really? We just bought a new car a few months ago, and while we were doing our comparisons I was surprised at just how few cars were available that got really high mileage. So where does that 33.7 figure come from?

Well, Brad links to this table from BTS, which does indeed promote the 33.7 mpg number. But how did they come up with that? According to footnote C:

Assumes 55% city and 45% highway-miles. The source calculated average miles per gallon for light-duty vehicles by taking the reciprocal of the sales-weighted average of gallons per mile. This is called the harmonic average.

OK, so what's the source? Here it is:

1995-2009: Ibid., Highway Statistics (Washington, DC: Annual Issues), table VM-1, available at http://www.fhwa.dot.gov/policyinformation/statistics.cfm as of Apr. 20, 2011.

Great. So let's take a look at Table VM-1. It provides a figure of 23.8 mpg for all light-duty vehicles on the road in 2009. There's nothing there about about 2010 passenger cars in particular. So where does their data come from? Here's footnote 1:

The FHWA estimates national trends by using State reported Highway Performance and Monitoring System (HPMS) data, fuel consumption data (MF-21 and MF-27), vehicle registration data (MV-1, MV-9, and MV-10), other data such as the R. L. Polk vehicle data, and a host of modeling techniques. Starting with the 2009 VM-1, an enhanced methodology is used to provide timely indictors on both travel and travel behavior changes.

Hmmm. Table MF-21 estimates total 2009 gasoline usage of 132.8 billion gallons on highways and 3.8 billion gallons elsewhere. Table MF-27 provides a similar number for 2008.That's it. Table MV-1 informs us that there were 134.8 million automobiles registered in 2009. Tables MV-9 and MV-10 provide registration numbers for trucks and buses. None of that is helpful.

So apparently BTS's actual methodology is based on HPMS data "and a host of modeling techniques," not anything in those tables. That means I have no way to check their work. Still, does that 33.7 mpg figure seem credible? Using their 55%/45% split, that would mean an average city EPA rating of about 29 mpg and a highway rating of 39 mpg. That sure seems high to me. DOE's search site won't let me plug in those exact numbers, but when I ask for a list of all cars rated above 30 city and 40 highway, I get a grand total of 13 hits — and of those, eight are either Volkswagens or Smart cars, neither of which has a huge sales presence in the United States. What's more, as near as I can tell, not a single one of the top ten sellers in the United States in 2010 had a combined mileage of 33.7 mpg, and according to Ward's Automotive, only 4% of auto buyers in 2010 purchased cars with a combined mileage over 30 mpg, let alone 33.7 mpg.

Bottom line: If I had to guess, I'd say that somewhere between 2-5% of passenger car sales in 2010 had a combined mileage of 33.7 mpg. The average mileage of 2010 cars just has to be way less than that. If anyone has better data on this, please let me know.

1Or maybe not. In an update, Brad says this: "According to this Argonne study — and this analysis by the Department of Energy’s Jacob Ward— it takes about 6 kwh of energy to refine a gallon of gasoline, not 6 kwh of electricity, as I originally stated." Electric cars still come out looking pretty good, but quite that good.