Kevin Drum

The Mystery of Obama

| Tue Oct. 26, 2010 12:24 PM EDT

What happens if Republicans win control of one or both houses of Congress in November? Ezra Klein says he'll put money on a bigger tax cut getting passed but thinks the odds of big deficit reduction are tiny. Matt Yglesias thinks the odds of a big deficit reduction are even tinier, since Republicans don't actually care about deficit reduction.

And me? I don't know, because I don't really feel like I understand President Obama's position in all this. It's pretty obvious what House Republicans will do: extend all the Bush tax cuts and possibly try to make a few modest cuts in spending. It's less obvious what the Senate will do, but even if Democrats retain control there are going to be several members of their caucus willing to compromise on the kind of program House Republicans want to pass. So that means big tax cuts and small spending cuts, and therefore an increase in the deficit.

But what about Obama? Would he veto such a program and risk shutting down the government? Or is he still dedicated to looking postpartisan? Will he become a born-again deficit fighter after the elections? That's the wild card, and I honestly have no idea where he stands on this. To make it even worse, he's going through a lot of staff changes, and there's no telling what kind of advice he'll be getting compared to the past couple of years.

So Obama is the central mystery here, I think. If I could figure out what he's going to do, I'd be a lot more willing to make a prediction. But I can't.

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Five Memes That Deserve to Die

| Tue Oct. 26, 2010 11:00 AM EDT

My latest for the magazine is online now, and it's a pre-election piece called "Five Memes That Deserve to Die." That's the subhead, anyway. The real headline is "Invasion of the Brain-Devouring Platitudes," which goes better with the conceit of our horror movie cover featuring Sarah Palin as a 50-foot woman. (Explained here.) Basically, it's a collection of five memes about the election that I'm pretty sure are wrongheaded regardless of how things turn out next Tuesday. Which is convenient, since I don't know how things are going to turn out next Tuesday.

As it happens, I wasn't very happy with how the piece turned out. But I've always wondered what the journalistic etiquette is for that kind of thing. Go ahead and admit it? Or just promo it as usual? I'm not sure. Besides, I read through it again this morning and it didn't seem all that bad after all. So maybe I was just in a cranky mood the week I wrote it. I'm sure you'll all let me know in comments.

What Conservatives Fear

| Mon Oct. 25, 2010 10:57 PM EDT

Politico's Kenneth Vogel has a piece today about American Crossroads, the mega-PAC founded earlier this year with assistance from Karl Rove and Ed Gillespie and originally dedicated to 100% public disclosure of donors. Unfortunately, it turned out that rich conservatives were a wee bit shy about about being publicly identified with actual conservative politicians, so they ditched the transparency hokum and spun off Crossroads Grassroots Policy Strategies — a group whose name is notable mainly for bringing to mind Voltaire's quip about the Holy Roman Empire.1 After that, fundraising skyrocketed. 

But here's the best part. Here's what rich conservatives were supposedly afraid of:

“Whether it’s legitimate or not, there is this near-hysteria, this belief that the Democrats are going to come after us,” if donors disclose their contributions to GOP-allied groups, said one person who was asked to donate the Crossroads groups. “Everybody is truly afraid that the Obama administration is going to target them.”

This is what I was talking about a few days ago when I wrote about the difference between liberal and conservative craziness. Both sides have their loons, but can you imagine this happening on the liberal side? Even at the height of Bush hatred during the early years of the Iraq war, rich liberals never lived in fear that Bush was "going to target them." It's paranoid lunacy. I'm sure they thought that conservatives would fight back against them, but that's about as florid as they got.

I dunno. There's hardly a demographic in the country that's safer from any effective kind of retribution than rich, establishment conservatives. But after a steady diet of Fox News I guess even they start to believe that Obama really is going to come after them with his Chicago style of thug politics. In reality, all they've gotten from him is an occasional bit of Wall Street bashing and some election-season tub thumping about the U.S. Chamber of Commerce. But reality really doesn't matter much anymore.

1Namely that it was neither holy, nor Roman, nor an empire. Likewise, Crossroads GPS is designed to extract money from rich businessmen for media buys, which is the opposite of "grassroots"; is interested solely in defeating Democrats, which is the opposite of "policy"; and was created for the express purpose of funding advertising for the 2010 election, which is the opposite of a "strategy."

When Bill Clinton Eats Out

| Mon Oct. 25, 2010 8:28 PM EDT

In a story about the "Bill Clinton Ate Here" effect on restaurants, we get this tidbit:

When Mr. Clinton visits a restaurant, everybody in the room knows it. Douglas Band, an aide who frequently travels with Mr. Clinton, says that his boss introduces himself to every diner, as well as every waiter and every kitchen staff member. He will always pose for photographs and sign guest books. Someone from his staff will send a thank-you note a few days later.

That is truly awesome. Every diner. Every waiter. Every kitchen staff member. Every time he eats out. The man is truly a freak of nature. I hope his brain is preserved for science when he dies.

1.5 Cheers for Finland!

| Mon Oct. 25, 2010 3:18 PM EDT

Bob Somerby has a question about Finland:

As we’ve noted, every journalist flies to Finland to examine its high-scoring (middle-class) schools. This furthers a preferred press corps narrative: Our own public schools are a mess!

But please note: No one has ever flown to Finland to explore a second question: How do they provide health care at such a very low cost? Here are the OECD data for the U.S. and Finland:

   Total spending on health care, per person, 2007:
   United States: $7285
   Finland: $2900

How weird! Why does no one fly to Finland to examine this major achievement?

Click the link for the answer. I think it's about right.

The Real Tea Party

| Mon Oct. 25, 2010 1:52 PM EDT

The Washington Post, after a massive effort to contact every tea party group in the nation, says their activism has probably been overrated:

Seventy percent of the grass-roots groups said they have not participated in any political campaigning this year. As a whole, they have no official candidate slates, have not rallied behind any particular national leader, have little money on hand, and remain ambivalent about their goals and the political process in general.

....The findings suggest that the breadth of the tea party may be inflated. The Atlanta-based Tea Party Patriots, for example, says it has a listing of more than 2,300 local groups, but The Post was unable to identify anywhere near that many, despite help from the organization and independent research.

....In all, The Post identified more than 1,400 possible groups and was able to verify and reach 647 of them. Each answered a lengthy questionnaire about their beliefs, members and goals. The Post tried calling the others as many as six times. It is unclear whether they are just hard to reach or don't exist.

In other words, the grassroots tea party movement (lower case) is a lot less important than most people think. Conversely, Tea Party Inc. (upper case) is considerably more important than it's usually given credit for. Adele Stan has more on that.

But there's another disturbing finding from the Post's survey:

Eleven percent said that Obama's race, religion or ethnic background was either a "very important" or "somewhat important" factor in the support their group has received.

In the past I've argued that although racial tensions were obviously a motivating factor in the tea party movement, conspicuous racism itself wasn't a big part. But this makes me wonder. The taboos against admitting that race makes a difference are pretty strong, and if 11% of the tea party groups were willing to admit this in writing, it suggests that probably at least a quarter of them have similarly overt views. Maybe more. That's a helluva lot.

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Growth and Stagnation

| Mon Oct. 25, 2010 1:12 PM EDT

After a review of Amar Bhidé’s A Call for Judgment: Sensible Finance for a Dynamic Economy that frankly makes it sound pretty much like a hundred other recent books and magazine articles, Matt Yglesias says we should all read it anyway:

For one thing, though Bhidé doesn't seem super-interested in pursuing this line of inquiry, I think that if it's correct it fills in the microfoundations missing from the argument of Hacker and Pierson’s Winner-Take-All Politics by producing a plausible account of how developments in the financial sector could produce both super-inequality and middle class stagnation through the misallocation of resources away from real economy innovators.

I'm confused. Hacker and Pierson were mostly concerned with the political foundations of income inequality, not the economic foundations. And in any case, isn't this pretty easy? If bankers — and rich people in general — hoover up a larger and larger share of national income, then there's less left over for the middle class.1 Economically, that's pretty much all the foundation you need. The only way you wouldn't get a combination of massive inequality growth and middle class stagnation is if the innovations of the financial sector supercharged the economy so powerfully that the overall pie was bigger for everyone. That's always the prospective argument while this stuff is happening, of course, but in retrospect it hasn't recently turned out to be true. Basically, the rich have spent the past couple of decades recklessly running the economy for their own benefit, and now that they've driven it into a ditch they're spending enormous2 amounts of their wealth to make sure they aren't expected to contribute so much as a penny to help rebuild it. That's really pretty much it. I'm not sure there's any need to overthink this.

1Or vice versa. If you keep middle class wages flat, then there's a bigger pool of money for the rich. I actually prefer this mechanism for a variety of reasons, but the actual inequality numbers work out the same either way.

2Enormous to you and me, anyway. Peanuts to them, of course.

Political Rage

| Mon Oct. 25, 2010 12:49 PM EDT

Megan McArdle reads an article about — well, it doesn't really matter what it's about. Here's what she says in response:

This resonates with my growing disgust at the level of anger in the blogosphere. I don't mean irritation, pointed jibes, or even spirited discussion; I mean an aggressive revelling in rage. I notice it much more on left wing sites, but that's because I basically refuse to read angry right-wing sites, so I don't know what's going on there.

Two things here. First, I'm pretty sure that right-wing rage continues to outpace left-wing rage fairly substantially — though, like Megan, I don't really spend too much time reading rage-filled sites on either side of the aisle. But the conventional wisdom is that righties are all fired up this election season over Barack Obama's attempts to destroy the America we love, while we lefties are dispirited and depressed. You can probably guess which emotion produces more rage.

Second, I think the blogosphere fools us about this stuff. In the past, I imagine there's been every bit as much rage as there is today. It's just that the mainstream media was all dressed up in suits and ties and most of us ordinary citizens didn't really have a way to channel our rage. But it was still there. The big difference isn't that we're any more filled with rage than we've ever been, it's just that it's all so public now. This might very well be a bad thing on its own (or not — who knows, really?), but it's not because tea partiers are any angrier at Obama than they were at FDR or Bill Clinton. We just have a better view of it these days.

That said, though, I too was pretty disgusted by the blogospheric treatment of Todd Henderson a few weeks ago, which was so wildly blown out of proportion that it reminded me more of a rabid mob than anything else. That kind of freeding frenzy has become all too common. On the other hand, "curb stomping" is just routine trash talk. I wouldn't read too much into it.

Are the Young Disillusioned?

| Mon Oct. 25, 2010 12:22 PM EDT

Bloomberg's Catherine Dodge writes today that "the thrill is gone" for young voters who supported Barack Obama in 2008:

Indiana University professor Gerald Wright opened his class on congressional elections by asking students if they saw the previous night’s school-sponsored U.S. House candidate debate a few blocks from campus.

Among almost 60 students, three hands went up.

“Most students don’t care about elections in general,” 20-year-old sophomore Melody Mostow said after the class last week. “In most midterm elections, there’s not that central person for us to rally around.”

Yeah, maybe. But you know what? I wouldn't have watched either. The U.S. Congress is effectively a parliamentary body these days, and it matters only slightly who its actual individual members are. A few extreme cases aside, all that matters is what party the candidates belong to. No one needs to listen to a debate to figure that out.

In any case, I'm willing to bet a million dollars — no, make it a billion — that young voters will turn out this year in roughly the same numbers that they always turn out for midterm elections. The chart on the right from the good folks at CIRCLE shows that youth turnout was up a bit from historical lows in 2006, but the broader trend is that turnout in general has gone steadily down, and a youth turnout rate of 20-22% this year would be entirely average. And that's pretty much what I expect it to be. No thrill needs to be gone to explain this.

Quote of the Day: Please Fool Me

| Mon Oct. 25, 2010 11:43 AM EDT

From Adam Ozimek:

Our desire to have costs hidden from us is a very expensive preference.

He is reacting to a study showing that CAFE mileage standards are a less efficient way of reducing gasoline use than simply raising gasoline taxes. In the end, we all pay more for CAFE increases than we would if we just accepted the need for higher taxes.

I'll confess that I'm not sure I'm convinced about this specific argument, though it's pretty conventional economics. Largely this is because CAFE standards are more permanent than taxes and don't suffer from the problem that people just get used to them and revert to their old behavior. If CAFE standards are higher, then they're higher forever and gasoline use is reduced forever. Conversely, people react pretty weakly to higher gasoline prices in the short term, and we don't really know all that much about how they react in the long term. So I'd be careful here. Ditching CAFE for higher gasoline taxes may be orthodox economics, but it might have social and political shortcomings even aside from our unwillingness to consider it in the first place.

Still, there's a pretty good chance the study is right, and certainly this argument is right in general. We do an awful lot of inefficient revenue raising in this country because we're not willing to simply raise taxes in a transparent way. Republicans don't seem to have figured this out yet.