Kevin Drum

Pivot Watch

| Mon Jan. 25, 2010 8:59 PM EST

Here's the latest dance step in Barack Obama's post-Massachusetts "pivot." It's an old-school chestnut:

President Barack Obama intends to propose a three-year freeze on spending that accounts for one-sixth of the federal budget — a move meant to quell rising voter concern over the deficit but whose practical impact will be muted.

....The White House will propose a three-year freeze on discretionary spending unrelated to the military, veterans, homeland security and international affairs, according to senior administration officials. Also untouched are big entitlement programs such as Social Security and Medicare.

The freeze would affect $447 billion in spending, or 17% of the total federal budget, and would likely be overtaken by growth in the untouched areas of discretionary spending. It's designed to save $250 billion over the coming decade, compared to what would have been spent had this area been allowed to rise along with inflation.

Whatever. Just to be clear: $250 billion over the coming decade, even if Obama miraculously makes this work,1 is $250 billion out of a projected deficit of, oh, let's call it $10 trillion in round numbers. In other words, about 2 or 3 percent.

And in return for what? The liberal base now has yet another reason to be disgusted with Obama, so the obvious hope is that independents are going to lap this up. And who knows? Maybe they will. But what I wonder is this: hasn't Obama's pivot happened too quickly to seem like anything other than what it increasingly is: a panicky and transparent attempt to recover from the Massachusetts tsunami? Given that, is anyone going to buy it? Or is it just going to come across as a thinly veiled and poll approved effort to "connect" with voter angst without really doing anything substantive?

Beats me. In the past, I've been pretty astonished by the willingness of voters to take politicians at their word no matter how plainly their words are politically motivated. So maybe it will work. But I have my doubts.

POSTSCRIPT: And just to repeat myself: I'm not sure I've ever seen this level of political panic grip a party so fast over a single election loss. It's just remarkable. Yes, I know Dems were getting nervous before last week's election, and Scott Brown's victory just opened the floodgates, so to speak. But still. I've just never seen anything quite like this. I'm not sure if that's because it's never happened in recent memory or because I just haven't followed politics closely for long enough. Perhaps some political reporter with more experience can school me on this.

1Matt Yglesias lays out pretty clearly here why it probably won't.

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The Public Sector

| Mon Jan. 25, 2010 6:18 PM EST

In the middle of a rant about healthcare reform and the compromise over the Cadillac tax, one of Andrew Sullivan's readers says this:

The idea that public employees make less than those in the private sector is a myth that needs to die. Most already have cadillac plans and in most places their salaries are ahead of private workers whose taxes go pay for their income. On top of that they get much better benefits and pensions, so to let them out of a tax that private industry workers will have to pay who work at the same income level is a slap in the face. Our system cannot work if the government employees earn more than the private industry workers earn who are supporting them.

I'm genuinely curious about this. I think my sense of the situation is probably a common one: 30 or 40 years ago, public sectors employees worked under an implicit deal: the pay wasn't too great, but they made up for it with job security, good benefits, and a nice pension plan. This was widely accepted by both workers and taxpayers as a reasonable trade. Today, though, that deal has changed: now public sector workers get paid as much or more than comparable private sector workers and they have job security, good benefits, and spectacular pensions.

But is this actually true? In the upper reaches of management, it obviously isn't. Mid-level and executive level managers often make half as much as comparable private sector managers. (Or less.) And although rich pension deals make headlines, it's not clear how widespread they really are.

More generally, though: do ordinary workers (clerks, school teachers, construction workers, etc.) make as much as their private sector counterparts? Or more? And where could we go to find out? William Voegeli tried to make the case that California public workers were overpaid in City Journal earlier this year, but his piece was notable for its almost complete lack of actual evidence on this score.1 Likewise, there are probably a bunch of left-leaning think tanks that would assure me public sector workers still labor under the jackboot of imminent poverty, but who knows if they're providing the whole story either?

This is a hard question to answer. How do you make sure you're really looking at comparable jobs? How do you value different benefits packages? How do you adjust for things like age, experience level, and regional cost of living differences? Has public sector comp gone up faster than inflation, or merely faster than more stagnant private sector median wages? Has anyone taken a broad, reasonably rigorous look at this? I'd sure be interested if someone has.

1In fairness, he was writing broadly about the quality of state services. Compensation levels were just one part of his argument.

Pass the Damn Bill

| Mon Jan. 25, 2010 4:02 PM EST

Mark Kleiman called Sen. Dianne Feinstein's office today to register his support for passing the Senate healthcare bill along with later fixes during reconciliation and heard some good news:

The polite young man who answered the phone said that he could take a comment about a legislative matter, listened politely to about three polite sentences of Pass the Damned Bill and an expression of displeasure about DiFi’s “slow down” comment, assured me that the Senator had voted for the bill and was eager to see it pass — and then gave me the first ray of sunshine I’ve seen since the catastrophe in Massachusetts.  He said that they’d been getting a lot of Pass the Damned Bill phone calls and wanted to know whether my call was part of an organized effort.

Italics mine. This is terrific. So join in: call your representative and your senators and tell them to pass the bill. Easy instructions here. Do it first thing tomorrow. It doesn't take long.

Bipartisan Healthcare Watch

| Mon Jan. 25, 2010 3:38 PM EST

So if Democrats decide to start over and reach out to Republicans to pass a bipartisan healthcare bill, what would Republicans be willing to support? Here's John McCain:

....overhauling medical malpractice lawsuits, allowing residents of one state to buy health insurance from a company in another state, and granting tax credits for people who purchase health insurance on their own.

And here's Mitch McConnell:

You start with junk lawsuits against doctors and hospitals. Interstate competition among insurance companies. And many of my members would be lookin’ — would — would be willing to look at equalizing the tax code. Right now, if you’re a corporation and you provide insurance — for your employees, you get to deduct it on your corporate tax return. But if you’re an individual on the individual market, you don’t.

That's two Republican leaders saying exactly the same thing, so I think it's safe to say that this is pretty much the GOP party line right now. Nothing about preexisting conditions, nothing about Medicaid, nothing about cost control, nothing about subsidies. Just a tired attack on medical malpractice suits, a gift to the insurance industry, and a tax cut. That's the Republican plan.

Lots of Washington pundits are willing to concede that Republicans were "uncooperative" on healthcare, but most of them also seem to think that maybe if Democrats had tried a little harder they could have talked them into some kind of compromise. This really ought to stop that kind of talk. These suggestions are little more than jokes, not the kind of thing that comes from a party that takes healthcare reform seriously.

Throwing the Left a Bone

| Mon Jan. 25, 2010 3:13 PM EST

Florida Senator Bill Nelson had this to say on Good Morning America today:

"The president’s instincts are right in the mainstream of America. I think he’s allowed the left wing pull him too much in that direction. But he always comes back into the center."

This is one of those things that makes me feel like I live not just on a different coast than the Washingtonocracy, but on a different planet. My take on Obama for quite a while has been exactly the opposite of Nelson's: I think one of his big problems is that he considers it a grave character defect to ever openly throw a bone to the left. Throwing those bones — even smallish, symbolic ones — would have done him an immense amount of good during his first year, but he just couldn't bring himself to do it. Maybe a firm statement about DADT even if action didn't come until later. Or a serious effort to claw back the AIG bonuses even if it didn't work. Or — obviously — full-throated support of the public option even if it eventually got killed by Joe Lieberman. But none of that happened. I've come to the conclusion that he's so hypersensitive to accusations of "pandering to the left" that he'll do almost anything to avoid them.

But I'm a partisan liberal, so maybe I'm just blind to all the bone throwing he's done. Feel free to set me straight in comments.

Quote of the Day: Time for CEOs to Say "Enough!"

| Mon Jan. 25, 2010 1:44 PM EST

From Sen. Jim DeMint (R–Wingnuttia), praising the Citizens United decision that allows big corporations to directly contribute to political campaigns:

I think people should be able to come together in associations and organizations and spend money to get their message out.  I think that's going to promote the democratic process, instead of really what we've got now, is where you essentially give the labor unions carte blanche over our system, grassroots as well as spending.

Um, yeah. We really need to do something about the skyrocketing power of labor unions in American life. Especially after that economic meltdown they caused in 2008. You'd think people would learn.

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Everything New is Old Again

| Mon Jan. 25, 2010 1:10 PM EST

Ross Douthat, Bill Kristol's replacement as one of the New York Times' resident conservative columnists, is probably tired of the word "wunderkind" and phrases like "youngest op-ed columnist the paper had ever hired."1  But he gets 'em both anyway in a profile by Mark Oppenheimer in the latest issue of Mother Jones. I guess it comes with the territory. In any case, here he takes a crack at explaining how he feels about abortion:

He began with the boilerplate position: "It would probably be a blanket ban on abortion with exceptions for rape, incest, and to save the life of the mother." He went on, however, to say such a ban would require "radical experimentation with the welfare state" and likely "a lot of new welfare agencies of one kind or another," plus orphanages and an expanded "network of crisis pregnancy centers." Nobody involved would go to jail, he said, as "it is possible to believe that abortion is murder and also believe it is a completely unique form of murder. Abortion would be, you know, if you have first-degree murder, second and third degree...it's like seventh-degree murder or something."

"But," he quickly noted, "those things aren't on the table."

Actually, that's not bad for a guy who's pretty close to an abortion absolutist. "Seventh-degree murder" is about as good an excuse for not jailing abortionists as I've heard. I still don't get the rape and incest exception, though. If it's murder, why is it OK to murder children born of rape or incest?

Anyway, Ross has led an interesting life and Oppenheimer's piece is a good read. Check it out.

1OK, I don't actually know if he is. But if it were me, I would be.

The End of Anonymity (Sort Of)

| Mon Jan. 25, 2010 12:27 PM EST

The Economist's blogs have officially entered the 20th century:

Today we are changing the way we write our bylines [i.e., they are actually using bylines for the first time ever. –ed] in order to make it clearer that different correspondents are writing different posts. We hope this will facilitate discussion between our bloggers and with other blogs, and clear up any confusion about multiple correspondents in the same city.

Some readers will wonder why we do not move to full bylines, as opposed to signing only our initials. We still consider this blog a collective effort, where what is written is more important than who writes it. This is how we have run The Economist in print since 1843, and the newspaper will remain without initials. We hope this anonymity liberates correspondents to write what they think and not worry about how it makes them look to the world. Even as we sign our initials on this blog, we hope the focus remains on the substance of our posts, not on us.

That particular post was written by "R.M." Next step: force the Economist kicking and screaming into the 21st century by figuring out who the names are behind all the initials and posting them somewhere for easy reference. This is clearly a job for crowdsourcing, so let's get cracking, people.

In the meantime, I guess this means I can suspend my semi-boycott of Economist blogs. Progress!

UPDATE 1: A start: R.A. = Ryan Avent, G.I. = Greg Ip. Keep 'em coming!

UPDATE 2: R.M. = Roger McShane.

UPDATE 3: M.S. = Matt Steinglass.

UPDATE 4: E.G. = Erica Grieder.

UPDATE 5: A motherlode of names! R.L.G. = Robert Lane Greene, J.F. = Jon Fasman, J.S. = Julian Sanchez, P.D. = Peter David, A.S. = Allison Schrager.

UPDATE 6: N.M. = Noah Millman, W.W. = Will Wilkinson.

Polarization and Presidents

| Mon Jan. 25, 2010 11:34 AM EST

Ezra Klein points to some recent research showing that there's been a trend over the past few decades for Congress to spend ever more time on presidential initiatives. It's up from about 15% of Senate votes in the early 80s to 25% today:

If you're wondering why this matters, the answer is simple: polarization. When the president takes a position on an issue, that issue polarizes instantly. To test this, Lee looked at "nonideological" issues — that is to say, issues where the two sides didn't have clear positions. In the Senate, only 39 percent of those issues ended in party-line votes. But if the president took a position on the issue, that jumped to 56 percent. In other words, if the president proposed the "More Puppies Act," the minority is likely to suddenly discover it holds fervently pro-cat beliefs.

So: more presidential initiatives, more polarization. Or is it the other way around? Has increased polarization forced presidents to be more proactive setting the legislative agenda — or, at the very least, forced presidents to take a public stand on more issues? Seems to me that could play a pretty big role in this dynamic.

Getting to Yes

| Sun Jan. 24, 2010 11:23 PM EST

The top line takeaway of this short piece in Newsweek is that a senior Democratic aide says Nancy Pelosi is "way short" of the votes needed to pass the Senate healthcare bill. But reading further, the news is more positive:

The big hang-up is about the Cadillac tax passed by the Senate, which would pay for the full reform package by taxing people with top-shelf health-care plans (as opposed to just taxing the wealthiest Americans, which the House approved in its bill). House Democrats are also uneasy about the Nebraska “Cornhusker Kickback” compromise that initially won over Sen. Ben Nelson....This aide says that unless Senate Democrats will commit to repealing it through reconciliation, Pelosi can’t get to 218.

....For now, senior lawmakers are working the phones furiously to talk up the idea of the Senate promising to retroactively unravel several distasteful components. If House Democrats make the good-faith deal, Pelosi is arguing that the Senate promise would be easy to keep. Reconciliation votes require only a 51-vote majority. Or even 50, in which case Vice President Biden could break the tie.

This aide says that leadership considers reconciliation, with the House conditioning its support on promised fixes in the Senate, as the much more strategic route than breaking the package into parts, which isn’t ideal because all of the parts are interlocking. Asked what the timetable would be for that, this aide says weeks, not months.

Italics mine. This is good news: both that passing the Senate bill along with an agreement to fix specific pieces later via reconciliation is the preferred strategy, as well as the fact that the Democratic leadership is apparently "working the phones furiously" to make it happen. After all, it shouldn't be too hard: a deal on the Cadillac tax was cut over a week ago, and Ben Nelson has already agreed to give up his special deal for Nebraska. If those are the biggest roadblocks, there's really nothing in the way of reaching an agreement to proceed.

Next step: how about actually talking about this stuff in public and making it clear that this is what everyone is working toward? Assuming it actually is, of course.