Our Eternal Senate

While I was writing the previous post, I happened to look up the process for amending the Constitution, and I noticed something I hadn't registered before. Here's Article V:

The Congress, whenever two thirds of both Houses shall deem it necessary, [blah blah blah] Provided that no Amendment which may be made prior to the Year One thousand eight hundred and eight shall in any Manner affect the first and fourth Clauses in the Ninth Section of the first Article; and that no State, without its Consent, shall be deprived of its equal Suffrage in the Senate.

Huh. If that says what I think it says, it means the Senate in its current form is eternal. Not even a constitutional amendment can eliminate it or reform it unless literally every state agrees. Since 1808 has long since come and gone, that means this is the only absolutely immutable part of our national machinery, the one and only thing that can never be touched. Sort of an odd choice to be given such lofty distinction, no?

Rick Perry thinks Supreme Court justices should serve 18-year terms instead of having lifetime appointments. Jon Chait says this is a rare example of a smart Perry policy:

The current system of lifetime tenure creates real problems. Huge policy swings hinge on the simple health and longevity of Supreme Court justices. This results in very old justices clinging to their seats until a sufficiently friendly president can take office. It also gives presidents an incentive to nominate the youngest possible justice who can be confirmed, as opposed to the most qualified possible justice. And eliminating some element of the sheer randomness by which each party gets to appoint justices would tend to reduce the chances of the court swinging too far one way or another from the mainstream of legal thought.

It's hard to imagine the incentive structure for any president to propose such a reform — why volunteer to the the first president whose judicial nominees don't get lifetime tenure? But it is slightly reassuring to see glimmers of sense in Perry's platform.

Why be the first president to volunteer for this? That would depend on how it was implemented. It would require a constitutional amendment, and I imagine a constitutional amendment could affect sitting justices. So a president might agree to this as long as the amendment limited the terms not just of new justices, but also of sitting justices, starting with the longest-serving ones. That could end up working out fairly favorably.

More to the point, though, the president wouldn't get a chance to volunteer in the first place. Presidents have no role in the constitutional amendment process. Still, the same logic applies to the president's party in Congress, so that's a nit. So who knows? Maybe it could be done with the proper amount of fiddling around the edges.

But this brings up another question: why is Perry in favor of this? Is it just part of the general movement conservative outrage over "activist judges"? Perry seems to believe that term limits would "restrict the unlimited power of the courts to rule over us with no accountability," but I don't really see that. It's equally hard to see how you'd conclude that this would be institutionally favorable toward either liberals or conservatives unless you're really, really sure that your side is going to control the White House more often than the other.

Meh. It's probably a mug's game to try and dig too deep into Perry's mind here. My guess is that "judges bad, term limits good" is about as far as he's considered things. Still, for the usual goo goo liberal reasons that Chait lists, I'd support him on this. Let's hear it for term limits on Supreme Court justices.

WikiLeaks still hasn't published the full cache of diplomatic cables that it began releasing last year. So should they? The Guardian reports:

WikiLeaks is conducting an online poll of its Twitter followers to decide whether the whistleblowing site should publish in full its unredacted cache of US diplomatic cables.

Hmmm. A Twitter poll. I wonder how that's going to turn out?

WikiLeaks appeared likely to use the Twitter responses, which it said favoured disclosure at a ratio of 100 to one, to pave the way for imminent disclosure of the remaining material from its cable archive.

Consider me non-shocked. Anyway, if you read the whole story it turns out this is apparently all part of the ongoing war between Julian Assange and the Guardian. One way or another, though, it looks as if we're all going to have access to the entire cache of cables soon enough.

UPDATE: This chart appears to be completely wrong. Apologies. More details here.

Via Chris Bodenner, this graphic compares fatal hospital infections in the U.S. to those in Europe. This might disturb you at first, but remember: the free market is always right, so clearly we've collectively made a rational choice here. We've decided that although our healthcare costs are far higher than in Europe, this is worth it in return for far higher death rates from hospital infections. Best healthcare in the world, baby!

More graphic at the link.

I'm curious about something. Conservatives are forever reminding us liberals that the New Deal didn't get us out of the Great Depression. It was World War II that got us out of the Great Depression. And roughly speaking, that's true enough.

So why, then, isn't that a good model for getting us out of our current slump? WWII featured five years with federal deficits above 10% of GDP, three of which were above 20% of GDP. And although WWII might have been a good thing for global freedom, all that spending was for war materiel that was completely useless to the U.S. economy. If we repeated this today, we could do better than that even if half the stimulus spending was meaningless makework.

So what's the deal? Did WWII rescue the American economy or not? And if it did, what's the argument for not trying it again, but without the war?

My position on the proposed merger between AT&T and T-Mobile (which the Justice Department has decided to fight) is aggressively wishy-washy. On the one hand, maybe the mobile phone market is sort of a natural duopoly given the huge capital costs of building out a good nationwide network. Then again, maybe having three or four companies really does provide more competition, stronger price pressure, and increased innovation. I just haven't studied this enough to know. Still, Felix Salmon makes an interesting point here:

One thing which fascinates me is the way in which neither the complaint nor the press release makes any mention of the fact that the proposed deal would give the merged company substantially all of the market in GSM cellphones — the only ones which work in most of the rest of the world. Americans who travel internationally pretty much have to get their cellphone service from one of these two providers — and they’re highly sensitive to exorbitant international roaming fees. Which would almost certainly go up in the event of this merger.

Now, you could argue that this is actually a pretty small segment of the market. Maybe Felix cares about it, but the number of Americans who travel abroad frequently and need a universal phone isn't that large. So it's not something the Justice Department should be worrying about.

Still, it's an interesting observation — though I'd note that dual-mode phones are available from Verizon and others who use CDMA networks in the U.S., and current international roaming fees are so outrageously high from all U.S. carriers that it's hard to imagine them going up much more with or without a merger. But maybe that just shows a lack of imagination on my part. Those of you who travel overseas frequently and know more about this should feel free to school me in comments.

Rick Perry would like to repeal the 16th and 17th Amendments, hates the New Deal, thinks Social Security is a Ponzi scheme and global warming is a gigantic hoax, and would pretty much like to roll back America's entire social-welfare edifice "from housing to public television, from the environment to art, from education to medical care, from public transportation to food, and beyond." Ruth Marcus is appalled:

Whoa! These are not mainstream Republican views—at least, not any Republican mainstream post-Goldwater and pre-Tea Party. Even Ronald Reagan, who had once criticized Social Security and Medicare, was backing away from those positions by the 1980 presidential campaign.

…Perry’s ideas range from wrongheaded to terrifying.…The subtitle of Perry’s book is "Our Fight to Save America from Washington." Reading it summons the image of another, urgent fight: saving America from Rick Perry.

Here's what gets me. Perry's views are getting denounced by all the usual lefty suspects but not much by anyone else. And the reason for this is something very odd: In modern America, conservatives are largely given a pass for saying crazy things. They're just not taken seriously, in a boys-will-be-boys kind of way. It's almost like everyone accepts this kind of stuff as a kind of religious liturgy, repeated regularly with no real meaning behind it. They're just the words you use to prove to the base that you're really one of them.

Why is this? I'm not quite sure what the left-wing equivalent of this would be, but it would be something along the lines of Hillary Clinton writing a book that proposed repealing the 2nd Amendment and adding one that banned hate speech; limiting defense spending to 2 percent of GDP; raising the top marginal tax rate back to 90 percent on millionaires and 100 percent on anything above, say, $10 million; instituting British-style national health care; and spending half a trillion dollars on new programs for universal preschool, two-year paid leaves for new parents, and an increase in the minimum wage to $15 per hour. But in real life, Dennis Kucinich wouldn't support a platform like this, let alone a front-runner for the presidential nomination. And if one did, he or she would be instantly tarred as an insane nutball and would never see the business end of a TV camera again.

But when Republicans say the mirror image of stuff like this, it just gets a shrug. Sure, Perry apparently wants to roll things back to about 1900 or so. But hey—it's just a way of firing up the troops. Nothing to be taken seriously.

But why not?

I'm pretty sure I've posted this before in one form or another, and I'm not sure what prompted me to do it again, but every once in a while I feel the urge to present some raw data about how our kids are doing in school. The charts below are taken directly from the most recent NAEP report card, generally viewed as the "gold standard" among measures of student achievement. Here are the results among eighth-graders over the past 20 years in reading:

  • Overall scores are up.
  • White scores are up.
  • Black scores are up.
  • Hispanic scores are up.

And for math:

  • Overall scores are way up.
  • White scores are way up.
  • Black scores are way up.
  • Hispanic scores are way up.

Obviously it would be nice to be doing even better. It would be nice if black and Hispanic scores were catching up faster. We still have plenty of lousy schools that we should be working hard to improve. And achievement results among twelfth-graders are more ambiguous. School reform is an important topic and worth spending a lot of time on.

Still, keep these basic results in the back of your minds. Contrary to widespread opinion, our children are doing better today than they were 20 years ago. We're making progress, not falling ever further behind.

Tyler Cowen links to a pair of papers that conclude that only 42 percent of the workers hired using stimulus funds came from the ranks of the unemployed. The rest came from other organizations or were hired straight out of school. Tyler concludes that this means the stimulus worked poorly:

One major problem with ARRA was not the crowding out of financial capital but rather the crowding out of labor.…You can tell a story about how hiring the already employed opened up other jobs for the unemployed, but it's just that—a story. I don't think it is what happened in most cases, rather firms ended up getting by with fewer workers.

There's also evidence of government funds chasing after the same set of skilled and already busy firms. For at least a third of the surveyed firms receiving stimulus funds, their experience failed to fit important aspects of the Keynesian model.

This paper goes a long way toward explaining why fiscal stimulus usually doesn’t have such a great "bang for the buck." It raises the question of whether as "twice as big" stimulus really would have been enough. Must it now be four times as big?

Maybe this is just my priors speaking, but I'd draw the exact opposite conclusion from this. First of all, a lot of stimulus spending went to states, where it was explicitly used to avoid laying off workers. That doesn't take anyone off the unemployment rolls, but it certainly keeps unemployment from getting worse. Second, no one expected ARRA to hire solely from the ranks of the unemployed. That's just not feasible, so these results hardly seem like a surprise to me. In fact, they seem pretty good. Third, yes, it's "just a story" that firms whose workers were hired away filled some of those new openings with the unemployed. But far from being some kind of weird fairy tale, it seems almost inevitable that this is partly true. And if even a third of those jobs were filled this way, it means nearly two-thirds of ARRA's total hiring (direct and indirect) was among the unemployed. And that's not even counting the effect of the increased spending from these newly hired workers that drives hiring in other firms

And fourth, my intuition says this result is an excellent argument that the stimulus should have been twice as big. Think of it this way. If the stimulus had been very small—say, $50,000—what would have happened? Well, if you could hire only one person, you'd almost certainly hire someone who was already working. There'd be lots of people to choose from, and it's a safer bet. At some point, though, you start to run out of good choices, and the currently employed are too expensive. So as the stimulus gets bigger you start to hire some of the best of the unemployed. Now make the stimulus super big, and cherry picking from the ranks of workers has played out almost completely. If 40 percent of the direct hires from the original ARRA spending were unemployed, I'd expect that something like 70 to 80 percent of the hires from a second trillion dollars of ARRA to be unemployed. What's more, all the newly employed people from that extra trillion would have created enough additional demand to benefit the rest of the economy as well.

Obviously, my intuition could be wrong. But overall, these results actually seem pretty positive to me. Probably at least half of ARRA's spending ended up in the hands of the unemployed, and if it had been bigger the vast bulk would have ended up in the hands of the unemployed. It's too bad we're not willing to try this out in real life to find out who's right.

Remember all those models that say presidential elections are won or lost based on the economy? The ones that increasingly make Barack Obama look like a doomed one-termer? Well, here's some good news for the Obama camp: a different model, from American University professor Allan Lichtman, "whose election formula has correctly called every president since Ronald Reagan’s 1984 re-election," says Obama is a shoo-in.

So how does that work? Well, Lichtman's model is based on 13 binary keys, and although Obama loses both of the keys that are based on economic performance, he wins nine others. Since any score of seven or more means the incumbent party wins reelection, Obama should prevail easily no matter who the Republicans nominate.

Is this right? Beats me. But you can't argue with seven successful predictions in a row, can you? Here are the nine keys that go in Obama's favor: (1) no primary challenge, (2) he's a sitting president, (3) no third-party challenge, (4) major policy changes enacted (healthcare and stimulus), (5) no social unrest, (6) no scandal, (7) no foreign policy debacles, (8) at least one big foreign policy success (killing bin Laden), and (9) no opponent with lots of charisma.

For what it's worth, you might plausibly argue with #4 on the grounds that both of these policy changes have been unpopular; possibly with #8 on the grounds that this isn't a big, lasting success (something that Lichtman has apparently changed his mind about over the past month); and possibly with #9 on the grounds that Rick Perry could turn out to be a pretty charismatic candidate. And you might argue that the economy is now looking so bad that it deserves more than one point.

Still, Lichtman is the expert, and he says, "Even if I am being conservative, I don’t see how Obama can lose." So there you go.

POSTSCRIPT: A bit of googling shows that Lichtman has been forecasting an Obama win since March of last year. So I guess this is nothing new. Still interesting, though.