On Economic Forecasting

From David Leonhardt, wondering whether the economy is headed back into recession:

Perhaps the best sign of how difficult it is to know the economy’s direction is that, as a group, the nation’s professional forecasters have failed to predict all the recessions since the 1970s, according to data kept by the Philadelphia Fed. In the last 30 years, the average probability they put on the economy lapsing into recession has never risen above 50 percent — until the economy was already in a recession.

Not to keep you in suspense, but Leonhardt concludes that the odds of a double-dip recession are now pretty good. I think he's right.

Man, I just don't have anything to say after that debate. Was it just my mood, or was the crazy really amped up to 11 this time around? I could barely pay attention to most of the raving coming from my TV.

I guess Perry is naturally the big news. My take is, I suspect, the conventional one: he didn't do so well. He didn't hurt himself really badly or anything, but he stumbled a lot. I mean, Social Security just isn't a Ponzi scheme. Period. Taxpayers pay taxes, and those taxes get sent to retirees. End of story. It's pretty much the same way we fund the Pentagon, the courts, the FBI, and everything else. Taxes come in, benefits go out. It'll keep working forever with only minor tweaks.

On climate change he was weirdly hesitant. I mean, he must have known this was coming, right? But he couldn't get a grip on himself and give a coherent answer. He just repeated over and over that lots of scientists weren't sure about global warming, which is just flatly wrong, and then flailed around a bit on Galileo — which didn't exactly illustrate his case the way he thought it did — before shifting into some completely irrelevant story about how Texas reduced air pollution. "That's the way you need to do it, not by some scientist somewhere saying, 'Here is what we think is happening out there.'" WTF?

Other than that, Perry just seemed generally unprepared and unwilling to really engage with the issues. I guess now we know why he's been afraid to give any interviews since he announced his candidacy. He's afraid he'll look like a kid who got called on in class after failing to study the night before. He needs to raise his game.

UPDATE: David Frum says Perry seemed "nervous and irritable." Will Wilkinson: "Perry came off halting, slightly confused, and peevish." I thought so too. I'm a little surprised that so many people thought Perry showed off his alpha male qualities tonight. Sure, he was generally aggressive and refused to back down from anything he'd said before, but his overall demeanor seemed a little twitchy and high-strung to me. But then, I'm not exactly the target audience here.

Racial Resentment and the Tea Party

Hey, did you know that Adam Serwer now writes for Mother Jones? Now you do! He's blogging over at the mothership MoJo blog, and today he highlights a new Brookings/PRRI survey of American attitudes toward—how to put this? The official title is "Attitudes in an Increasingly Diverse America Ten Years after 9/11," but the blunter version is "attitudes toward people who aren't like me."

Adam focuses on the retrograde attitudes of Fox News viewers, but before we get to that, I think the most interesting part of the survey is that it explicitly breaks out the views of self-described tea partiers. Here's a sampling of attitudes among tea party followers:

  • 63 percent believes that discrimination against whites is as big a problem as discrimination against minority groups.
  • 66 percent believes that the values of Islam are at odds with American values.
  • 54 percent believes that American Muslims are trying to establish Sharia law in the U.S.
  • 56 percent believes that newcomers from other countries threaten traditional American customs and values.
  • 72 percent believes we should deport all illegal immigrants back to their home countries.

This is apropos because there's been a wee bit of discussion lately about whether tea partiers are a bunch of stone racists hiding behind the Constitution, or whether that's just another offensive "race card" canard dreamed up by the usual suspects on the left. This survey probably won't change any minds, and I happen to think the term "racist" conceals more than it explains anyway. Still, what this survey does show is that tea partiers clearly harbor a pretty strong set of racial resentments. That doesn't make them all racists, but it is a simple descriptive fact, and it's something that's perfectly kosher to discuss openly as it relates to public policy.

As for Fox News, I think it's safe to say that Fox considers tea partiers to be its core audience. And so its programming needs to appeal to that audience. This explains why Fox put Jeremiah Wright on virtually 24/7 rotation during the 2008 campaign, and why, over the past year or so, they've spent so much air time on Shirley Sherrod, anchor babies, Common's invitation to the White House, birtherism, the Ground Zero mosque, Glenn Beck and "liberation theology," Van Jones, the New Black Panthers, various reverse discrimination outrages, the D'Souza/Gingrich/Huckabee "anti-colonialism" meme, minority preferences from the CRA as the cause of the housing bubble, the general panic over Shariah law, and much, much more. Any one or two of those could be a coincidence. Put them all together and you'd have to be pretty gullible to believe that they were just randomly chosen topics.

Fox News is America's headquarters for festering racial resentments. The Brookings/PRRI survey is just one more piece of evidence on this score.

Brad Plumer points us to a new survey from the Yale Project on Climate Change Communication, and the news is grim. As usual, plenty of people don't believe in global warming, and tea partiers really, really don't believe in global warming. But in a way, that's not the most appalling result of the survey. This is:

Holy cow. This is a straightforward factual question, and the correct answer is something in the neighborhood of 98%.1 But even among Democrats, only 42% think that most climate scientists believe global warming is happening. It's even worse among the other groups.

Hell, if it were really true that 60% of climate scientists believed in global warming and 40% didn't, I probably wouldn't believe in it either. But nationally, that's what a large majority of Americans think. They think that within the scientific community, there's roughly an even split among believers and deniers.

If this were limited to the far right, we could blame it on Fox and Drudge and Limbaugh and all the other usual suspects who peddle climate absurdities just because they conveniently buttress their worldview. Chris Mooney describes here how this kind of "motivated reasoning" helps explain why we find groups so polarized over matters where the evidence is so unequivocal.

But it's not just a phenomenon of the right. It's a phenomenon of everybody, including those who get their news from the mainstream media. It's what happens when reporters insist that every story about climate change has to include a quote from at least one or two skeptics to "balance out" the other scientists. Is it any wonder that the public is so wildly misinformed?

1I wasn't going to bother with this, but a reader emails to point out that, actually, 100% of climate scientists believe global warming is happening. Something like 98% of them believe that it's mostly caused by humans. But I'm giving our survey respondents a break, since I suspect most people automatically think "human-caused global warming" whenever they hear "global warming."

And Now, a Brief Word From the ACLU

Glenn Greenwald calls our attention to the ACLU's ten-year commemoration of 9/11. It's a little different from most of the others hitting the news stands this week. No pictures of the twin towers falling, no touching paeans about how we all came together as a nation for a brief shining moment, no photo spreads of exhausted firefighters or grieving relatives. In fact, no pictures at all. It's just plain, sober text about what's happened to our civil liberties over the past decade. Here are a few excerpts:

Torture: Just as the public debate over the legality, morality, and efficacy of torture was warped by fabrication and evasion, so, too, were the legal and political debates about the consequences of the Bush administration’s lawbreaking. Apart from the token prosecutions of Abu Ghraib’s “bad apples,” virtually every individual with any involvement in the torture program was able to deflect responsibility elsewhere. The military and intelligence officials who carried out the torture were simply following orders; the high government officials who authorized the torture were relying on the advice of lawyers; the lawyers were “only lawyers,” not policymakers. This had been the aim of the conspiracy: to create an impenetrable circle of impunity, with everyone culpable but no one accountable.

Indefinite detainment: President Obama’s pledge to close Guantanamo was undermined by his own May 2009 announcement of a policy enshrining at Guantanamo the principle of indefinite military detention without charge or trial....The real danger of the Guantanamo indefinite detention principle is that its underlying rationale has no definable limits.

Targeted assassinations: No national security policy raises a graver threat to human rights and the international rule of law than targeted killing....Under the targeted killing program begun by the Bush administration and vastly expanded by the Obama administration, the government now compiles secret “kill lists” of its targets, and at least some of those targets remain on those lists for months at a time.

Surveillance: The Obama administration, like the Bush administration before it, has used excessive secrecy to hide possibly unconstitutional surveillance....Hobbled by executive claims of secrecy, Senators Ron Wyden and Mark Udall have nevertheless warned their colleagues that the government is operating under a “reinterpretation” of the Patriot Act that is so broad that the public will be stunned and angered by its scope, and that the executive branch is engaging in dragnet surveillance in which “innocent Americans are getting swept up.”

Profiling: No area of American Muslim civil society was left untouched by discriminatory and illegitimate government action during the Bush years....To an alarming extent, the Obama administration has continued to embrace profiling as official government policy....There are increasing reports that the FBI is using Attorney General Ashcroft’s loosened profiling standards, together with broader authority to use paid informants, to conduct surveillance of American Muslims in case they might engage in wrongdoing.

Data mining: Nothing exemplifies the risks our national surveillance society poses to our privacy rights better than government “data mining.”....The range and number of these programs is breathtaking and their names Orwellian. Programs such as eGuardian, “Eagle Eyes,” “Patriot Reports,” and “See Something, Say Something” are now run by agencies including the Director of National Intelligence, the FBI, the Department of Defense, and the Department of Homeland Security....Without effective oversight, security agencies are now also engaged in a “land grab,” rushing into the legal vacuum to expand their monitoring powers far beyond anything seen in our history. Each of the over 300 million cell phones in the United States, for example, reveals its lcation to the mobile network carrier with ever-increasing accuracy, whenever it is turned on, and the Justice Department is aggressively using cell phones to monitor people’s location, claiming that it does not need a warrant.

But hey, it's just the ACLU. So serious! And such party poopers too. Anyway, aren't they the guys who hate America? I'm pretty sure they are. There's really no need to pay attention to all their tedious whining. Please carry on.

UPDATE: A few moments after I wrote this, I turned on the TV and found myself watching Time managing editor Richard Stengel intone the banal conventional wisdom that the lesson of 9/11 ten years later is that "we've recovered, we've moved on."

God no. Just no. I don't care how many people say this, or how many times they repeat it. It isn't true. Just yesterday we declared ourselves thrilled by the news that maybe someday in the future we'll be able to board a plane without first taking off our shoes. Thrilled! Listen to the ACLU. We haven't even come close to moving on.

Jared Bernstein notes that if he's elected president, Mitt Romney has promised to "immediately move to cut spending and cap it at 20 percent of GDP." That's crazy with the economy so sluggish, but in fact, it's even crazier than that. Here are budget projections for 2013 from the OMB:

  • Medicare: $534 billion
  • Social Security: $807 billion
  • Other mandatory: $858 billion
  • Interest: $320 billion
  • Defense: $675 billion
  • Total: $3,194 billion

The first four items are mandatory and Romney can't do anything about them, and I think he's made it pretty clear that he doesn't plan to cut defense spending. These five items collectively amount to 19.06% of projected GDP in 2013.

In other words, Romney is proposing that everything else in the budget be immediately cut to 0.94% of GDP. That's all he has left to fund the FAA, the border patrol, the FBI, overseas embassies, highways, disaster relief, the SEC, the court system, NASA, prisons, national parks, school lunches, flood control, medical research, and everything else in the domestic discretionary budget. That's an 87% cut in those programs.

This is the guy who used to run Bain Consulting? It doesn't look to me like he can even read a balance sheet.

The Upside of Being a Lunatic

Sen. Richard Shelby (R–Fuhgeddaboutit) says he's mighty impressed by Richard Cordray, President Obama's pick to head up the new Consumer Financial Protection Bureau. Jon Cohn explains what this means in real life:

So is Cordray on track for confirmation? Of course not. As Shelby made crystal clear, he and his fellow Republicans really don't care about Cordray's qualifications right now. They care about the board itself. They don't like it. Until Obama and the Democrats agree to modify it to suit conservative tastes, the Republicans won't confirm anybody to run it.

....Brookings scholar and historian Thomas Mann has called this practice a "modern-day form of nullification." I agree — and I think it's worth pondering just what that means.

The consumer protection agency exists because one year ago a majority of democratically elected lawmakers passed a law and a democratically elected president signed it. Now a minority of Senators representing a minority of the country are exploiting their procedural powers (i.e., using the filibuster) to prevent that law from taking effect.

That's undemocratic. And I mean that with a small "d."

Republicans can get away with this because (a) nobody cares about presidential appointments below the cabinet level, and (b) as I mentioned a few days ago, Republicans are expected to hold lunatic views and reporters simply give them a pass on it. At its core, the press doesn't really consider this stuff spiteful or petty or partisan or dangerous or anything like that. Sure, we're being treated to the spectacle of a bunch of constitutional conservatives explicitly abandoning their black letter constitutional duty to advise and consent, but hey. It's just Republicans being Republicans, and it's considered completely sincere no matter how crazy it is.

Democrats, of course, could do the same thing to the next Republican president, but it wouldn't work. Conservatives have a huge megaphone that's able to whip its audience into a wee bit more of a frenzy than the New York Times editorial page, and the mainstream press would play along by reporting the Democratic actions as pure political payback. Which would be true, of course. But that's not how they report Republican obstructionism, when they bother reporting it at all. Democrats don't get the benefit of being thought sincerely crazy. Republicans do.

I guess you can run a country this way. Not well, of course, but then, that's what they said about the dancing bear too.

From Mitt Romney, explaining step 3 of his 59-step plan to get to get America back to work:

You know, of course, Greta, who has been most hurt by the Obama economy. And it's people in middle incomes. And so what I want to do is lower taxes for middle-income Americans. And so I will remove, for middle-income Americans, people earning under $200,000 a year, any tax on interest, dividends or capital gains.  Let people save their money and use their money as they feel best with education, with their future, planning for retirement. Look, we've got to reduce the burden on middle-income Americans. They're just — they're just struggling right now.

I'm not sure which is more breathtaking: Romney's suggestion that someone earning $200,000 is "middle income," or his implication that actual middle-income Americans have more than a minuscule amount of investment income in the first place.

For the record, in 2004 the Tax Policy Center estimated that a median earner would save a whopping $70 if taxes on interest, dividends, and capital gains were eliminated completely. That's right: $70. Seven zero.

Of course, Romney has paired up this proposal with another one to eliminate the estate tax completely, which would save median earners zero dollars but save the super rich millions. The cynicism here is almost off the charts.

Obama to Maliki: Put Up or Shut Up

The New York Times has apparently confirmed a Fox News report that President Obama plans to withdraw almost completely from Iraq at year's end:

Defense Secretary Leon E. Panetta is supporting a plan that would keep 3,000 to 4,000 American troops in Iraq after a deadline for their withdrawal at year’s end, but only to continue training security forces there, a senior military official said on Tuesday. The recommendation would [...] involve significantly fewer forces than proposals presented at the Pentagon in recent weeks by the senior American commander in Iraq, Gen. Lloyd J. Austin III, to keep as many as 14,000 to 18,000 troops there.

The proposal for a smaller force — if approved by the White House and the Iraqi government, which is not yet certain — reflected the shifting political realities in both countries.

....In Iraq, a lingering American military presence is hugely contentious, even though some political leaders, especially among the Kurds and Sunnis, would like some American troops to stay as a buffer against what they fear will be Shiite political dominance, coupled in turn with the rising influence of neighboring Iran....But despite the reluctance of several administration officials to publicly get out ahead of a formal recommendation and a presidential decision on such a delicate issue, as a practical matter Mr. Panetta has almost run out of time for the military to plan the logistics of a withdrawal by year’s end.

Every leak has a reason. So here's my guess: this leak is designed to put pressure on Iraqi prime minister Nouri al-Maliki. The Pentagon needs time to plan its troop withdrawals, and for quite some time they've been saying that four or five months is the bare minimum they require. But the Iraqis have been hemming and hawing all year, refusing to say they want any troops to stay but also refusing to say they want them all to go.

So now it's put-up-or-shut-up time. The message here is simple: we're starting the machinery to withdraw nearly all our troops unless you tell us ASAP that you want us to stay. In another month or two it's going to be too late to change direction, so make up your minds now.

Perhaps this will concentrate some minds in Baghdad. But if it doesn't, we'll finally be out of Iraq — except for the contractors, CIA staff, embassy guards, and 3,000 or so trainers, of course. But other than that, we'll be out.

A Job is a Job is a Job

Last week I defended Republican governors from charges of hypocrisy for accepting federal funding even though they may have opposed the law that enabled the funding in the first place. Whether you oppose a program or not, once it's passed into law and your state's taxpayers are helping pay for it, you have both a right and an obligation to take advantage of it. Steve Benen comments:

But my concern isn't just the hypocrisy of Republicans decrying spending bills and then trying to direct that spending to their states and districts. My beef has more to do with their ideology: these same Republicans insist public investments can't create jobs and are bad for the economy, and then also say public investments can create jobs and are good for the economy.

And that's a problem, not of hypocrisy necessarily, but of an incoherent approach to governing.

This is quite a different kettle of fish, and it is indeed a problem of hypocrisy. If you oppose a program, that's fine. Maybe you just think it's a poor use of taxpayer dollars. But Steve is right: at any particular point in time, federal programs either create jobs or they don't. If you insist that they don't, you can't turn around and brag about all the jobs you brought to your state via federal roadbuilding projects. You can argue that you're just getting back the money your state sent to Washington in the first place, but you can't pretend that you suddenly believe that federal spending creates jobs after all just because the money is being spent in your own backyard.