Kevin Drum

Reining in Entitlements

| Fri Dec. 4, 2009 2:51 PM EST

The healthcare legislation winding its way through Congress is chock full of cost-savings measures.  But will they be allowed to take effect, or will Congress cave in and repeal them once they start to bite and interest groups start to squeal?  A new CBPP report suggests the former:

The history of health legislation in recent decades demonstrates that, despite some critics’ charges, Congress has repeatedly adopted measures to produce considerable savings in Medicare and has let them take effect....In arguing that Medicare cuts never “stick,” critics point in particular to Congress’ repeated refusal to let the reductions in physician reimbursement rates under Medicare’s so-called “sustainable growth rate” (SGR) mechanism, which it enacted in 1997, take full effect. The SGR cuts, however, represented a badly designed measure that was not intended to produce large savings (the projected SGR savings represented less than five percent of total Medicare savings in the 1997 bill), but turned into a blunt instrument that would have produced cuts far in excess of what was anticipated and would have had harsh and indefensible effects. (Moreover, even though Congress did not allow the full cuts required under the SGR formula to take effect, it has still cut the physician reimbursement rate substantially — at its current level, the reimbursement rate in 2010 will be 17 percent below the rate for 2001, adjusted for inflation.)

The SGR mechanism has little in common with most of the other provisions that Congress has enacted over the years to produce savings in Medicare and that have, in fact, taken effect. This distinction is important because most of the Medicare savings provisions in the House and Senate health reform bills are similar in nature to the types of Medicare provisions that Congress has enacted in the past that have taken effect — and they differ markedly from the blunt-instrument design of the SGR cut.

....Every significant deficit-reduction package in the last 20 years has included Medicare savings, most of which have been implemented as planned....And most of the savings enacted in 1997 other than the SGR cuts — nearly four-fifths — were implemented as well.

Obviously it's impossible to predict which cost savings measures will work and which ones won't.  But CBPP's summary of past efforts suggests that most of them will be allowed to take effect and most of them will have a noticeable effect.  They're still only small steps in the right direction, but anyone who's serious about reining in entitlement spending should welcome them.  Much more detail at the link.

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Quote of the Day: Sarah and the Birthers

| Fri Dec. 4, 2009 2:18 PM EST

From Sarah Palin, asked if she thinks questions about Barack Obama's birth certificate are legitimate:

I think the public, rightfully, is still making it an issue. I don't have a problem with that.

The mainstreaming of insanity in the Republican Party continues apace.

Death Threats Remain Steady

| Fri Dec. 4, 2009 2:04 PM EST

Secret Service director Mark Sullivan testified before Congress yesterday about PartyCrasherGate (or whatever they're calling it), and it's only at the very end of today's LA Times account that we actually learn something interesting:

[Sullivan] pushed back Thursday when Rep. Eleanor Holmes Norton (D–D.C.) suggested that the event may not have been properly staffed given reports of a rise in threats against President Obama.

Sullivan said that the number of threats against the nation's first black president was now "at the same level it was" during the two previous administrations.

Same level as always, eh?  So why is the belief so widespread that death threats are up?  Bob Somerby speculates here.  (Warning: as usual, not for the faint of heart or easily pissed off.)

Watching Cable News

| Fri Dec. 4, 2009 1:50 PM EST

Over at The Monkey Cage, Joshua Tucker wonders about the actual size of the daytime cable news audience: "When people say that cable news audiences are only in the hundreds of thousands, does that mean the same hundred of thousands? Or are lots of people watching infrequently?"  His colleague Markus Prior answers:

We don’t know for sure how the average audiences add up over the course of a day or a week because [cumulative] audiences are rarely reported by Nielsen. But it’s a good guess that concentration is pretty heavy.

I think that's a good guess too.  This is just anecdotal, but I recently received an email from a reader that began like this:

I just finished a two week visit by a family member of sorts who is about as standard issue Fox conservative as they come.  He's 68, retired (since 49) and his daily regimen consisted of waking up and turning on Fox News / CNBC all day — with friggin 2 and 5 year olds running around.  (News is not for children and Fox News in particular).  At the end of the day, when I get home, he's armed with the talking points and diverts every conversation back to venting and victimization.

And this one from another reader who is temporarily living in his mother's home, where Fox News is "blaring off two TV sets in the house virtually 24/7":

Watching my mother go into a spin cycle with every new "revelation", it occurred to me that it is not even necessary for Fox to spin anything — their job is "rinse and repeat". The FNC watchers let their fevered imagination fill in the gaps, going way beyond FNC's feeble reporting when they describe the issue to their friends and relatives. Because FNC is always on, it is not necessary to actually watch and listen — one can pass in front of a TV, catch a glimpse and a few words of the topic du jour and just make up the rest.

Like I said, this is just anecdotal.  But I suspect that Fox watchers (and perhaps other daytime cable news watchers) tend to be people who basically turn it on and listen all day as sort of background noise.  If that's true, it means that Fox's daytime audience is (a) really, really small, and (b) almost purely made up of fever swampers.  Plus, of course, a few hundred DC political junkies who don't realize how limited its reach is.  I'd welcome any actual data that either confirms or contradicts this.

ACORNorama

| Fri Dec. 4, 2009 1:14 PM EST

Ed Kilgore on ACORN mania among conservatives:

Regular readers of this site know the narrative by now: engorged with federal grants, ACORN engineered the housing and financial crises by intimidating lenders into offering mortgages to poor and minority families with no means or intentions of making their payments, and then when the chickens came home to roost, gambled everything on an illegal effort to secure bailouts and a general "socialist" takeover of the country by stealing the White House for its long-time associate and radical community organizer, Barack Obama.

....Any narrative this powerful has to be fed continuously, which is why the recent congressional vote stripping ACORN of nearly all access to federal grants was a pyrrhic victory for conservatives. How could they keep fear of ACORN alive?

That necessity led to yesterday's strange event in the U.S. House, a partisan "forum" on ACORN that was sort of a parody of a congressional hearing, based on the circular reasoning that the refusal of the House itself to launch an wide-ranging investigation of ACORN was proof of the conspiracy's power.

You can read Dave Weigel's detailed account of the "forum" by following the link above, but the main claim yesterday (specifically by Rep. Darrell Issa of CA) was that the White House serves as a "war room" for ACORN, as "proved" by Obama's tangential relationship with ACORN years ago in Chicago, and more recently, by the hiring of Democratic election law wizard Bob Bauer as White House Counsel. Bauer's smoking gun, it seems, is that he once wrote a memo dismissing broad-based GOP election fraud claims, and warning (accurately) that they would be retailed by the McCain-Palin campaign. Anyone denying the conspiracy, you see, is obviously a party to it.

In the same way that ClimateGate, though relatively trivial from the standpoint of science, is helping keep the faith among climate deniers, the ACORN videotapes, which have nothing to do with voter registration, are keeping the faith among the election fraud conspiracy theorists.  It would be loads of fun to watch if only it were happening in someone else's country.

Herding Cats

| Fri Dec. 4, 2009 12:54 PM EST

A friend emails to recommend this statement of the obvious from First Read:

Was Will Rogers right about the Democratic Party? With multiple reports today (in the NYT and National Journal) about how liberals are upset with Obama’s policies (on Afghanistan and other issues), it makes us wonder if it’s much easier to be a Republican president rather than a Democratic one. Consider: Because there are more self-described conservatives than liberals, GOP presidents are freer to play to their base and not rely as much on the middle to win national elections. In addition, Republican presidents typically don’t face much dissent from GOP members of Congress. Even as the Iraq war became an albatross for Republicans, almost all of them followed George W. Bush off that political cliff in 2006 and 2008. And on issues that Republicans now say they disagreed with Bush — the spending, the deficits, No Child Left Behind — the criticism was barely audible while he was office. By comparison, a Democrat has been in the White House for just 10 months, and the left is freely criticizing Obama over Afghanistan, health care, the economy, judicial nominations, you name it. Many liberals and Democrats would probably pat themselves on the back for this kind of independence. Then again, maybe there’s a reason why Republicans have controlled the White House more times than Democrats have over the past 40 years...

Sometimes it's worthwhile to repeat the obvious, just in case anyone has forgotten.  Which they seem to do with stunning regularity.  So yes, Virginia, the Republican Party really is different....

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Shiny Toys

| Fri Dec. 4, 2009 12:22 PM EST

Yesterday, as I was watching the idiocy unfolding around the case of the couple who crashed the White House state dinner a few days ago, I started getting uncomfortably reminded of the Clinton era.  I guess I'm not the only one:

The scandal over the state dinner breach by a Virginia couple hardly evokes the weight of Watergate or 9/11. But that has not stopped some in Congress from demanding an in-person explanation from social secretary Desirée Rogers, who was in charge of the dinner.

....A drawn-out standoff over the issue seemed very unlikely Thursday as efforts by Rep. Peter King (R-N.Y.) to subpoena Rogers were ruled out of order by the Democratic chairman of the House Homeland Security Committee.

It may not evoke the weight of Whitewater to Post reporter Michael Shear, but apparently it does to Peter King.  Given that the press has already gone cuckoo over this story, can you imagine the storm it would be causing if Republicans controlled Congress and decided to hold 87 days of hearings over it?  It would be like the White House Christmas card list all over again.

Note to media: it's time to put this one to bed before you fall into the fever swamp all over again.  Or do we need to give you some other shiny new toy to distract your attention first?

The Real World

| Fri Dec. 4, 2009 2:25 AM EST

In a column about how to deal with asset bubbles, Tim Duy says:

I am sympathetic with the view that interest rates were not necessarily too low during the build up of the housing bubble. Indeed, relatively low rates of investment (equipment and software) growth suggests that real rates were actually too high. But capital flowed to housing instead of more productive investment activities because that was the path of least resistance.

But why did capital fail to flow to productive investments?  Saying that housing was the "path of least resistance" doesn't explain anything.  In some sense, housing (or property in general) has always been the path of least resistance for investment dollars.

The real difference seems to lie not in housing becoming a better target for investment, but in real goods and services becoming less attractive ones.  Why?  Surely this is something that deserves considerably greater scrutiny than it's gotten.  Why did investors no longer think that the returns from investing in the real world portion of the American economy looked very compelling?  Why was demand for real world goods and services not high enough to provide ample investment opportunity?  This seems like a core question of the past decade that hasn't gotten enough attention.

All Power to the Fed?

| Thu Dec. 3, 2009 8:40 PM EST

Ben Bernanke thinks it's important for the Fed to hold onto its bank regulation and consumer protection functions.  "Because of our role in making monetary policy," he said in an op-ed this weekend, "the Fed brings unparalleled economic and financial expertise to its oversight of banks, as demonstrated by the success of the stress tests."

But is this really true?  Today, Vincent Reinhart, former director of the Fed’s monetary affairs division, says Bernanke is peddling hokum:

Apparently, the argument runs, there are hidden synergies that make expertise in examining banks and writing consumer protection regulations useful in setting monetary policy. In fact, collecting diverse responsibilities in one institution fundamentally violates the principle of comparative advantage, akin to asking a plumber to check the wiring in your basement.

There is an easily verifiable test. The arm of the Fed that sets monetary policy, the Federal Open Market Committee (FOMC), has scrupulously kept transcripts of its meetings over the decades. (I should know, as I was the FOMC secretary for a time.) After a lag of five years, this record is released to the public. If the FOMC made materially better decisions because of the Fed's role in supervision, there should be instances of informed discussion of the linkages. Anyone making the case for beneficial spillovers should be asked to produce numerous relevant excerpts from that historical resource. I don't think they will be able to do so.

An easily verifiable test!  I hope somebody does this.  Like Reinhart, I don't think they'll find any linkage either.  A separate bank regulator might or might not do any better than the Fed, but the Fed certainly doesn't bring any magic to the job.  (Via Real Time Economics.)

And in other Fed news, Bernanke's testimony today during his confirmation hearing didn't do much inspire confidence in his policy judgment either.  Bernanke, it turns out, is opposed to just about everything except cutting middle class entitlements.  Dave Dayen summarizes:

So let’s tally that up. No second stimulus, no jobs bill, no public investment to deal with the worst hiring crisis since the Depression, no relief for a jobless recovery, but yes to cutting people’s meager Social Security benefit and their health care in their old age.

That's the economic consensus among the Washington elite, so it's hardly surprising that Bernanke agrees with it.  It's also why I wish Obama had had the guts to nominate someone else.

Quote of the Day: Plutocrats!

| Thu Dec. 3, 2009 6:37 PM EST

From Felix Salmon:

When you have a progressive tax system, especially when there are surcharges on people making seven-figure incomes, you also have a system where for any given level of national income, the greater the inequality, the greater the government's tax revenues. And indeed federal revenues have been rising faster than median wages for decades now, thanks to the rich getting ever richer.

Given the government's insatiable appetite for cash, it's only natural that it would prefer to tax plutocrats, spending some of that money on poorer Americans, rather than move to a world where poorer Americans earn more (but still don't pay that much in taxes), and the plutocrats earn less, depriving the national fisc of untold billions in revenue.

The government's interests, then, are naturally aligned with those of the plutocrats — and when that happens, the chances of change naturally drop to zero.

This is true.  But it's not very true.  To see why, take a look at how progressive the federal tax system is.  The chart on the right is from a 2004 paper by Piketty and Saez, and it shows the total federal tax rate (income tax, payroll tax, etc.) for various income groups.1  As you can see, it's progressive, but it's not that progressive.  And that makes a difference.

Here's why: although the top 1% (the four richest groups in the chart) has a lot of income, the 60-80th percentile has about the same amount.  That's because although their incomes are a lot lower, there are a lot more of them.  So what happens if that group loses, say, 10% of its income and it goes instead to the very tippy-top earners?  Answer: total revenue to the government goes up about 1%.  The same is roughly true for the other income groups as well.

In other words, the federal government doesn't have much of an incentive to maintain lots of income inequality.  Not much fiscal incentive anyway.  For the most part, the political incentives swamp the fiscal ones, and unfortunately they aren't very closely balanced.  Pursue policies that raise middle class wages, and the effect is so diffuse and so slow that hardly anyone notices.  Pursue policies that benefit the rich and you get immediately showered with oceans of campaign contributions.  That's mostly what motivates our political economy, I think, not tiny changes in the total tax take based on changes in income inequality.2

1The chart starts at the 60th percentile because, basically, there's hardly any income to tax below that.  This is mostly an argument about the middle class vs. the rich.

2Plus, of course, the fact that the rich basically control the country and have an entire political party dedicated to their interests.  But that's a whole different post.