Kevin Drum

The Chinese Are Coming....To Syria

| Thu Nov. 12, 2015 2:38 PM EST

In a typical election, candidates move from the extreme to the middle as the campaign progresses. If you're a Republican, for example, you start out as a fire-breathing conservative in order to win the early primaries, and then slowly move to the center to win the later primaries and the general election.

Donald Trump has flipped the script, though. Now, you start out outrageous in order to get some attention, and then slowly become more sober-minded in order to appear more plausibly presidential. Will it work? Wait and find out! But it sure looks like Ben Carson has been taking lessons from the master. In Tuesday's debate he seemed to suggest that China had troops in Syria. Today, his business manager and all-around campaign major-domo, Armstrong Williams, took away any possible doubt:

When MSNBC's Tamron Hall told Williams on Wednesday that the Chinese are not in Syria, Williams remained steadfast.

"From your perspective and what most people know, maybe that is inaccurate," Williams told MSNBC...."Just because the mainstream media and other experts don't want to see any credibility to it, does not mean some way down the line in the next few days that that story will come out and will be reinforced and given credibility by others," Williams said. "But as far as our intelligence and the briefings that Dr. Carson's been in and I've certainly been in with him, we've certainly been told the Chinese are there."

Carson—or Williams—really ought to tell us who these experts are that keep briefing the campaign on foreign policy issues. Are these the same guys who told him that seizing the Anbar oil fields in Iraq could be done "fairly easily" and that ISIS could then be destroyed in short order? I mean, I like the can-do attitude here, but I'm still a little curious about what the exact battle plan would be. Maybe Carson will share that with us in the next debate.

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Ben Carson: Medical Fraud is Bad, Unless One of My Friends Does It

| Thu Nov. 12, 2015 1:41 PM EST

Ben Carson really, really hates medical fraud. Seriously: "There would be some very stiff penalties for this kind of fraud," he wrote a few years ago, "such as loss of one's medical license for life, no less than ten years in prison, and loss of all of one's personal possessions."

Unless, that is, the fraudster happens to be Carson's best and oldest friend. In that case, you write a letter to the judge saying, "there is no one on this planet that I trust more than Al Costa." And it worked. Costa was a dentist who pleaded guilty to billing insurance companies for procedures he didn't perform, but in the end the judge sentenced him only to a year of house arrest in his 8,300-square-foot mansion.

AP has the story here. But if you want some serious details about this whole case, Russ Choma has them right here at MoJo. Carson, needless to say, insists that Costa was innocent all along and was railroaded by the justice system. That's how things work in Carsonworld. There's the good guys and the bad guys, and Carson knows in his heart exactly who they are. As for facts, I guess they're just chaff thrown out by secular progressives to destroy good Christians.

Ted Cruz Is Not Going to Eliminate the IRS

| Thu Nov. 12, 2015 12:36 PM EST

Ted Cruz wants to eliminate the Department of Commerce, the Department of Energy, the Department of Education, and HUD. Big deal. Even if he could do it, all it means is that all their functions would get divvied up among other departments. Wake me up when Cruz tells us what actual programs he'd eliminate.

But Cruz also thinks he can eliminate the IRS. Or, in any case, "the IRS as we know it." Has anyone asked him just why he thinks this? His tax plan still has a 10 percent income tax. It has a standard deduction. It has a child tax credit. It has an EITC. It includes a charitable deduction. It includes a home mortgage deduction. And there's a business VAT to replace the corporate income tax. So who's going to oversee and collect and audit all this stuff? Tax fairies?

And while we're at it, I'm still waiting to hear more about Carly Fiorina's three-page tax code. Can't we at least see a rough draft?

Ted Cruz Was the Most Tweeted Candidate on Tuesday Night

| Thu Nov. 12, 2015 12:05 PM EST

I'm not even sure what this means, but it's a slow news day and I figure a colorful chart might brighten things up. Everyone loves colorful charts, don't they?

Anyway, a team of wonks from the Monkey Cage has put together a measure of Twitter activity during the Republican debate on Tuesday. Unfortunately, their software chose three shades of teal for three of the candidates, and I sure hope I got them right when I labeled the lines. Ted Cruz was apparently the most talked about by a large margin. This might be due solely to the fact that he got far more talking time than anyone else (13 minutes, vs. 11 minutes for the second-place Donald Trump). Ben Carson was the least talked about, and he also got the least talk time (about 9 minutes).

In any case, by the end of the debate (23:00) the top candidates were Cruz, Kasich, Rubio, and Trump. The other four had all faded to nothing. Oddly, while tweets about most of the candidates ebbed after the debate ended, Cruz continued to take off. His Twitter activity was higher at 11:30 than it was at any time during the debate. Make of this what you will.

Jeffrey Lacker Says Real Wages are Going Up. Is He Right?

| Thu Nov. 12, 2015 11:11 AM EST

Binyamin Applebaum asks inflation hawk Jeffrey Lacker why inflation hasn't risen if labor markets are tight, as he believes:

....There’s this confusion about real and nominal that I think infects the discussion, particularly of wages and slack. Real wages have accelerated over the last year because inflation has fallen and the rate of gain in nominal wages hasn’t changed much. The wage pressures we’ve been hearing about, they show up in the macro data as real wage pressures.

And the historical evidence suggests that there’s some lag before things accelerate as you reduce slack significantly. In 1966-67, we had unemployment at 5 percent, we pushed it to 4, and it was 1967 and 1968 when inflation took off. So there was a significant lag in the way that relationship seems to have worked in the past.

That got me curious: have real wages risen over the past couple of years? My preferred measure is production and nonsupervisory wages, and it looks like Lacker is right. Compared to CPI, the general trend is upward. It doesn't look to me like it's accelerating, but it does seem to be going up.

What's Up With Jeb Bush's Weird, Wonky, Totally Wrong Riff on Dodd-Frank?

| Wed Nov. 11, 2015 11:21 PM EST

Jeb Bush said a peculiar thing last night:

What we ought to do is raise the capital requirements so banks aren't too big to fail. Dodd-Frank has actually done the opposite, totally the opposite, where banks now have higher concentration of risk in assets and the capital requirements aren't high enough. If we were serious about it, we would raise the capital requirements and lessen the load on the community banks and other financial institutions.

The is peculiar for two reasons. First, it's unlikely that most viewers had the slightest idea what he was talking about. Second, he has things exactly backward. In fact, Dodd-Frank mandates higher and safer capital levels, and it does so largely because of a Republican amendment to the act.

Basically, Dodd-Frank instructed the Fed to issue new capital rules, which it did in 2013. These rules took into account both the new Basel III requirements as well as Dodd-Frank's changes, and specifically mandated higher capital requirements for big banks than for smaller community banks. In 2015, the Fed went even further, creating capital surcharges for the nation's largest banks. Here's the result:

Not all of this increase in capital is a consequence of Dodd-Frank, but much of it is. And certainly it's completely untrue that Dodd-Frank has done "totally the opposite." I wonder what Bush was thinking? This is hardly a big conservative hot button. In fact, most people have never heard of bank capital and have no idea what it means, which means there's hardly any point in making up stuff about it. And if the only goal was to criticize Dodd-Frank, there are far better ways to do it.

If Bush had wanted to argue that Dodd-Frank didn't go far enough, and we needed even higher capital requirements for big banks, I would have cheered him on. But that's not what he said. Very strange.

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Here's Why Other Candidates Are Giving Ben Carson a Pass

| Wed Nov. 11, 2015 2:29 PM EST

Why didn't any of the other candidates go after Ben Carson last night? He's a frontrunner, isn't he?

Yeah, he is. Here's my guess: when you see a guy digging himself into a hole, why get in the way? More and more, as the stress of the campaign gets to him, Carson is freely exposing himself as an honest-to-God crackpot. Not just a hardcore conservative like Ted Cruz or an ego-driven windbag like Donald Trump, but a true Glenn Beck/Michele Bachmann/Alex Jones type who really and truly believes in fever swamp conspiracy theories. Criticize his past and he goes full frontal on every bit of listserv crankery about Barack Obama—and he does it pretty fluently, too. He obviously knows this stuff cold. Push him on his odd world view and he starts spouting off about how "secular progressives" are destroying America and probably trying to kill him. Ask him about his theory that the pyramids were built by Joseph to store grain, and he doesn't blink. Sure he still believes that. Put him in a friendly setting and he'll give you the full nine yards about how political correctness is responsible for everything from drug addiction to persecution of Christians to Marxist tyranny and gun confiscation.

This is a guy who's set to implode all by himself, so why waste energy attacking him? Eventually he'll suggest that the pope is actually Satan or something, and then he'll be forced to slink back to the rubber-chicken circuit—with a higher speaking fee to soothe his pain. In the meantime, better to worry about the folks who might actually pose a real threat.

Chart of the Day: Republican Tax Plans for the Middle Class

| Wed Nov. 11, 2015 1:14 PM EST

Of the five leading candidates, four have released semi-detailed tax plans. We're still waiting on Ben Carson's tithe-based plan. Still, I thought everyone ought to get a look at how their plans affect the middle class vs. the rich. After all, we liberals keep nattering on about how these guys all want to "cut taxes on the rich," so let's see the evidence.

Well, the Tax Foundation is a right-leaning outfit, so you have to figure they're going to give Republican plans a fair shake. And their distributional analysis of Rubio, Bush, Trump, and Cruz shows that their tax plans are all pretty similar: tiny after-tax gains for middle-income workers and huge gains for the top 1 percent. I've used the Tax Foundation's static analysis, since it's the most tethered to reality, but even if you use the magic dynamic estimates you get roughly the same result: the rich make out a whole lot better than the middle class.

That said, you really have to give Ted Cruz credit. When it comes to giving huge handouts to the rich, he's the true Republican leader.

The Minimum Wage Took a Beating Last Night

| Wed Nov. 11, 2015 12:28 PM EST

Nobody was in favor of raising the minimum wage last night:

Trump: Taxes too high, wages too high, we're not going to be able to compete against the world....People have to go out, they have to work really hard and have to get into that upper stratum.

Carson: My first job working in a laboratory as a lab assistant, and multiple other jobs. But I would not have gotten those jobs if someone had to pay me a large amount of money....I would not raise it. I would not raise it, specifically because I'm interested in making sure that people are able to enter the job market and take advantage of opportunities.

Rubio: If I thought that raising the minimum wage was the best way to help people increase their pay, I would be all for it, but it isn't. In the 20th century, it's a disaster. If you raise the minimum wage, you're going to make people more expensive than a machine.

So we have a billionaire who says people just have to suck it up and work harder; a neurosurgeon who doesn't realize he got paid minimum wage for his jobs as a kid; and a senator who thinks it's still the 20th century. But one thing is for sure: they're in favor of cutting taxes on the rich and keeping wages low for the poor. Sweet.

John Kasich Wants to Slash Everything Except the Pentagon

| Wed Nov. 11, 2015 11:38 AM EST

How would John Kasich cut spending? Answer: his father was a mail carrier blah blah blah. OK, but did you want to name any specific steps, sir? Why certainly:

We would move the Medicare system from a 7 percent growth down to about a 5 percent growth. And I have a whole series of ways to do that. In Ohio, we reduced Medicaid funding for the poor from 10 percent to 2.5 percent, didn't cut one benefit or didn't take anybody off the rolls. Why? Because we're innovators. I've been an innovator my entire career. And I really don't care what special interests or lobbyists have to say. I have a job to do when I take over a public office. Now, we freeze non-defense discretionary for eight years. We also put an increase in defense spending. Our tax cuts balance out. And at the end of the day, we will get to a balanced budget.

So here is Kasich's plan: cut Medicare, cut Medicaid, cut domestic discretionary spending, and increase defense spending. And we already know he wants to cut Social Security. So his plan is to cut every single aspect of domestic spending and increase defense spending. And this guy is the moderate in the field.