Kevin Drum

Report: 0.03% of Families in Public Housing Make a Lot of Money

| Mon Aug. 17, 2015 5:54 PM EDT

The Washington Post reports today on what's sure to become a shiny new conservative talking point. Here's the inevitable headline:

In a nutshell, the story behind this is pretty simple: HUD checks your income when you apply to live in subsidized housing, but they never check it again. Most people who climb up the income ladder move out anyway because they want to live someplace nicer, but a few don't. And of those few, a very few make really large amounts of money.

How many? Well, out of 1.1 million tenants, about 2.3 percent are over the income limits. Most of them, however, are only modestly over, or have been over the limit for just a short time. Only 0.03 percent are "egregiously" over the limit. Still, 0.03 percent is 0.03 percent, and these are the families the audit report focuses on. Why not kick them out?

HUD tweaked its policy on high-earning tenants in 2004, encouraging the thousands of housing authorities in the system to move families out of public housing if they earn more than the income limit for their area. While HUD gives money to the housing authorities, they’re run by states and local governments.

But the 15 authorities investigators looked at told them they had no plans to evict these families, because if they did, poverty would continue to be concentrated in government-subsidized housing. The goal, they said, was to create diverse, mixed-income communities and allow tenants who are making good money to serve as role models for others.

Okey doke. The programs are actually run by the states. And the states unanimously allow over-income families to stay because they think it has a positive impact on the housing projects.

As usual, then, once you read past the click-bait headline, the actual story turns out to be considerably less inflammatory than it seems. HUD encourages states to kick out over-income families, but doesn't require it. The states prefer to keep them, and for a seemingly good reason. And if you limited yourself to kicking out just the "egregious" cases in the blaring headline, you'd save only 0.03 percent of the budget.

Opinions may differ on this, but any way you look at it, it's just not a big problem. The number of very high earners in public housing is minuscule, and it's a pretty self-policing system since families that make half a million dollars mostly don't want to stay in public housing anyway. More than likely, then, it's probably best to ignore the whole thing and leave the program alone.

That's not likely, though. I wonder who will be the first Republican candidate to make this a standard part of their stump speech?

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First Amendment Law is Facing Some Very Big Changes

| Mon Aug. 17, 2015 3:31 PM EDT

Adam Liptak says that Reed v. Town of Gilbert is the sleeper Supreme Court case of the past year. It unanimously struck down an ordinance that discriminated against signs announcing church service times, but only three justices ruled on the basis of existing law. The other six signed an opinion that went further, ruling that many other speech regulations are now subject to "strict scrutiny." How far will this go?

Strict scrutiny requires the government to prove that the challenged law is “narrowly tailored to serve compelling state interests.” You can stare at those words as long as you like, but here is what you need to know: Strict scrutiny, like a Civil War stomach wound, is generally fatal.

“When a court applies strict scrutiny in determining whether a law is consistent with the First Amendment,” said Mr. Abrams, who has represented The New York Times, “only the rarest statute survives the examination.”

Laws based on the content of speech, the Supreme Court has long held, must face such scrutiny. The key move in Justice Thomas’s opinion was the vast expansion of what counts as content-based. The court used to say laws were content-based if they were adopted to suppress speech with which the government disagreed.

Justice Thomas took a different approach. Any law that singles out a topic for regulation, he said, discriminates based on content and is therefore presumptively unconstitutional.

Securities regulation is a topic. Drug labeling is a topic. Consumer protection is a topic.

This is obviously not news to people who follow this stuff carefully, but it was news to me. Apparently the reach of Reed is pretty spectacular: three laws have been struck down by lower courts in just the past two months based on the reasoning in the case. Any law that treats, say, medical records or political robocalls or commercial speech differently from any other kind of speech is in danger—and there are a lot of statutes on the books that do exactly this.

They say that hard cases make bad law. But Reed was an easy case. It failed "the laugh test" said Elena Kagan. And yet, it seems likely to have provided an excuse for an astonishingly broad change in how speech is regulated. So far it's stayed mostly under the radar, but eventually something bigger than panhandling or ballot selfies will get struck down, and suddenly everyone will notice what happened. What then?

Professor [Robert] Post said the majority opinion, read literally, would so destabilize First Amendment law that courts might have to start looking for alternative approaches. Perhaps courts will rethink what counts as speech, he said, or perhaps they will water down the potency of strict scrutiny.

“One or the other will have to give,” he said, “or else the scope of Reed’s application would have to be limited.”

Stay tuned.

Social Security Is More Important Than a Lot of People Realize

| Mon Aug. 17, 2015 1:41 PM EDT

The 2015 Retirement Confidence Survey from the Employee Benefit Research Institute is out, and it shows the usual: hardly anyone thinks that Social Security benefits will remain stable in the future. They expect cuts, cuts, and more cuts.

This may be part of the explanation for the two charts on the right. If you ask current workers, only a third think that Social Security will be a major source of retirement income. But if you ask current retirees for a reality check, two-thirds report that Social Security is a major source of their retirement income.

Why the big difference? If workers think Social Security benefits are likely to be cut, that's probably a part of the explanation. But a bigger part is almost certainly just invincible optimism. Current workers are sure they're going to save enough, or get a big enough return on their 401(k), or get a big enough inheritance, or something—and this will see them through their retirement. Social Security? It'll just be a little bit of extra pin money for fun and games.

But in reality, that's not how it works. For most people, it turns out they don't save nearly as much as they think, which in turn means that their little Social Security check is what keeps them solvent. If more people understood this, public acceptance of conservative plans to cut Social Security benefits would probably be a lot lower.

Happy Families: Let's Just Call It a Tie Between Democrats and Republicans

| Mon Aug. 17, 2015 12:41 PM EDT

Who's got happier families, Democrats or Republicans? David Leonhardt reports on a new study that says it's Republicans:

Among married people between the ages of 20 and 60, 67 percent of Republicans report being “very happy” with their marriages....That gap shrank when the researchers factored in demographic differences between parties....But the gap did not disappear. Even among people with the same demographic profile, Republicans are slightly more likely than Democrats to say they are happily married. The seven-percentage-point gap that exists between Republicans and Democrats without any demographic controls shrinks to three percentage points with those controls.

OK, so three percentage points. And since this study was done by Brad Wilcox of the right-wing Institute for Family Studies, you have to figure it's as friendly toward Republicans as possible. But even Wilcox admits that causality might work in the opposite direction:

The GSS data and our earlier research suggest that an elective affinity—based on region, religion, culture, and economics—has emerged in the American electorate: married people are more likely to identify as Republican and unmarried people are more likely to identify as Democratic.

Sure. The Democratic Party is obviously more friendly toward non-married couples and the Republican Party is more dedicated to the proposition that (heterosexual) marriage is important. So the survey difference could be due to the fact that Republicans are simply less likely to admit to an unhappy marriage. As Wilcox says, "Perhaps Republicans are more optimistic, more charitable, or more inclined to look at their marriages through rose-colored glasses."

Personally, I'd be happy to put this whole subject to rest. The differences are small no matter how you slice the data, and really, who cares? Republicans generally report higher happiness levels overall, which is understandable at one level (conservatism doesn't challenge your comfort level much) but peculiar at another (if they're so happy, what's the deal with the endless anger and outrage?). But whatever the reason, if they're generally happier they're probably also happier with their marriages.

As for generally dysfunctional family behavior (teen pregnancy, divorce rates, etc.), I suspect that has a lot more to do with social factors like race, age, religion, and so forth. Party ID doesn't seem likely to play a huge role as a causal factor. Unless someone comes up with some genuinely blockbuster results, I'm willing to just call this a tie and move on.

What Happens When a Small City Raises Its Minimum Wage?

| Mon Aug. 17, 2015 11:36 AM EDT

When a big city raises its minimum wage to $15 per hour, local companies probably won't lose too much business. A few will lose business to online companies, and a few on the border of the city will lose business to competitors right over the city line, but overall losses will probably be modest. It will be a few years until we know for sure, since most cities doing this aren't phasing in the full $15 rate until 2016 or later.

But what happens if a small city does this? Emeryville is a tiny place nestled in between Oakland and Berkeley that recently raised its minimum wage to $14.44, the highest in the country. Vic Gumper runs a pizza place there:

All workers now earn $15 to $25 an hour as part of an experimental business model that also did away with gratuities and raised prices, making meals at all five locations "sustainably served, really ... no tips necessary."

....Gumper has also earned kudos from patrons for his innovation, but some have recoiled from paying $30 or more for a pizza. He has seen a 25% drop in sales over the last few months and has had to eliminate lunch hours at some locations.

"The necessity of paying people a living wage in the Bay Area is clear, so it's hard to argue against it, and it's something I'm really proud to be able to try doing," he said. "At the same time, I'm terrified of going out of business after 18 years."

Obviously this wouldn't be a problem if the national minimum wage went up—though robots might be—but it's a problem in Emeryville even though its neighboring cities also have pretty high minimum wages.

I don't have any conclusions to offer here. This is just raw data. We'll be getting a lot more like this as additional cities join the $15 club and economists eagerly collect data to see what happens. In the meantime, anecdotes like this are all we have.

Carson, Cruz, Fiorina Are the Big Winners After the Debate

| Mon Aug. 17, 2015 11:05 AM EDT

It's taken a while, but we finally have a national poll taken following the Republican debate. Fox News conducted a poll starting on the Tuesday after the debate, so the results capture not just reaction to the debate, but reaction to the big Trump-Kelly feud over the weekend. The results, it turns out, aren't that different from some of the insta-polls: Ben Carson (!) is the big winner and Jeb Bush is the big loser. And Trump? He pretty much stayed where he was.

Carson and Carly Fiorina "won" the debate; Trump and Rand Paul lost it. But these numbers are for all registered voters. Among Republicans, about equal numbers thought Trump did the best or the worst, for a net score (best minus worst) of -1 percent. Surprisingly, independents were the most enthusiastic about his debate performance, giving him a net score of +4 percent.

Overall, nearly half of Republicans now support either Trump, Carson, or Cruz for president. Those are the three of the most extreme candidates running. For the moment, anyway, it appears that Republican voters are in no mood to support anyone even remotely in the mainstream.

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Here's How to Talk Like Donald Trump

| Sun Aug. 16, 2015 3:03 PM EDT

Back in 1996, Newt Gingrich wrote a memo that explained how to talk like Newt Gingrich. "That takes years of practice," he conceded up front, but he revealed that you could come close just by studying a list of his favorite words. Unfortunately, that was two decades ago and Gingrich is now a has-been. So what if you want to speak like Donald Trump? Well, that takes years of practice too. Still, you can come close just by studying a list of his go-to talking points.

So here's the list. Study it. And remember: it doesn't really matter what question you're asked. Whatever it is, just say a few words and then switch to any of these topics at random. There's no need to be subtle, either. Just switch gears. And don't worry if you've already said it. Just say it again. Telling people you're leading in the polls never gets old!

  1. Our national debt is $19 trillion. We're going to be Greece on steroids! I want to get rid of this deficit.
  2. I'd send Carl Icahn to China. He's a great negotiator.
  3. I'll build a huge wall, the greatest wall ever, and Mexico will pay for it.
  4. The Mexicans/Chinese/South Koreans are killing us. They're taking away all our jobs. Our leaders are so stupid.
  5. I get along very well with Mexicans/Chinese/Putin/foreign leaders.
  6. I'm leading in all the polls. All of them.
  7. I cherish women. I have such respect for women.
  8. We have to kick the hell out of ISIS and take all their oil.
  9. Iran is getting $150 billion. That's ridiculous. Also: 24 days is ridiculous too.
  10. I want a simpler tax plan. I want to make it great for the middle class.
  11. Saudi Arabia makes a billion dollars a day.
  12. We have to treat our vets better.
  13. I would be so tough. You wouldn't believe how tough I would be.
  14. I give money to everyone. And then they owe me favors. All the politicians are like that. It's a totally corrupt system.
  15. We don't have time for political correctness.

Here's an example: What do you think about Planned Parenthood?

Well, I hate abortion. And....you know, I cherish women. I have such respect for women. But if you really want to see poor treatment of women, just go to Iraq. They're beheading women! We have to kick the hell out of ISIS and take all their oil. It's the only way. You know, Saudi Arabia makes a billion dollars a day. They should be helping us fight ISIS. We can't afford to do it by ourselves. Our national debt is $19 trillion. We're going to be Greece on steroids! I want to get rid of this deficit.

The sad thing is that this isn't really a joke. It looks like one, I know. But if you read actual Trump answers to actual Trump questions, this is pretty much what they're like.

In any case, this is not an exhaustive list. And if you can't find something you think you can use, don't panic. Just attack. It doesn't really matter who. Megyn Kelly, Hillary Clinton, Jeb Bush, Barack Obama, whatever. The more outrageous the better. Alternatively, do just the opposite: say that you love the people/organization in question and will support them totally. You'll be great to them!

Now you can talk like Donald Trump. You're welcome.

Maryland Official: Lead Poisoning Is the Royal Road to Riches

| Sun Aug. 16, 2015 12:25 PM EDT

Technically this has nothing to do with lead and crime, but since I'm Mother Jones' senior lead correspondent it's up to me to put up this outlandish little item from Maryland:

Gov. Larry Hogan's top housing official said Friday that he wants to look at loosening state lead paint poisoning laws, saying they could motivate a mother to deliberately poison her child to obtain free housing.

Kenneth C. Holt, secretary of Housing, Community and Development, told an audience at the Maryland Association of Counties summer convention here that a mother could just put a lead fishing weight in her child's mouth, then take the child in for testing and a landlord would be liable for providing the child with housing until the age of 18.

Pressed afterward, Holt said he had no evidence of this happening but said a developer had told him it was possible. "This is an anecdotal story that was described to me as something that could possibly happen," Holt said.

I'm pretty sure this wouldn't actually work, but that hardly matters. It's just another example of the peculiar Republican penchant for governance via anecdote. They're all convinced that someone, somewhere, is trying to rip them off, but they can never find quite enough real examples of this. So instead we get Reaganesque fables about stuff they heard from some guy who heard it from some other guy who said, you know, it could happen.

By the way, if you're tempted to do this, please don't. Licking a lead fishing weight once probably won't actually cause a detectable rise in blood lead levels, but it's still a really bad idea.

Donald Trump Still Unclear About His Own Talking Points

| Sun Aug. 16, 2015 12:12 PM EDT

Donald Trump gets serious!

RADDATZ: Let me ask you a serious foreign policy question. What would you do about ISIS using chemical weapons?

TRUMP: I think it's disgraceful that they're allowed and you can't allow it to happen and you have to go in and just wipe the hell out of them.

RADDATZ: What do you do? Do you go in with ground troops?

TRUMP: What did you say? Say that again.

Ah, the old "I can't hear you over the crowd noise" routine. I see that Trump is picking up political pointers from the pros already. He's a quick learner.

Over on NBC, he has his usual addled conversation with Chuck Todd, but I see that he hasn't been getting pointers from his policy advisors:

DONALD TRUMP: No, not at all. Look, we are a debtor nation. We owe, I mean, now it's 1.9 trillion, okay? I've been saying 1.8. Now, it's 1 point — it’s really kicked in. It's soon going to be 2.4 trillion dollars, okay? That’s like a point, whether you believe in the great economists or not, that seems to be a point of no return. That's where we're Greece on steroids, okay?

This is one of the dozen or so talking points that Trump uses as his random answer to whatever happens to have been asked, and yet he still doesn't actually understand it. The number he's trying to pull from his brain is 19 trillion, not 1.9 trillion. Since Trump is obviously good with figures and would never misstate, say, the buying price of a property, it's hard to avoid the obvious conclusion that he doesn't really have the slightest idea about—or interest in—the size of the national debt and what it means. It's just a good applause line.

AT&T Is the NSA's Best Friend

| Sat Aug. 15, 2015 2:35 PM EDT

New Snowden documents indicate that AT&T has been the biggest and most cooperative supplier of internet and phone data to the NSA:

AT&T has given the N.S.A. access, through several methods covered under different legal rules, to billions of emails as they have flowed across its domestic networks. It provided technical assistance in carrying out a secret court order permitting the wiretapping of all Internet communications at the United Nations headquarters, a customer of AT&T.

....In September 2003, according to the previously undisclosed N.S.A. documents, AT&T was the first partner to turn on a new collection capability that the N.S.A. said amounted to a “ ‘live’ presence on the global net.” In one of its first months of operation, the Fairview program forwarded to the agency 400 billion Internet metadata records — which include who contacted whom and other details, but not what they said — and was “forwarding more than one million emails a day to the keyword selection system” at the agency’s headquarters in Fort Meade, Md.

....In 2011, AT&T began handing over 1.1 billion domestic cellphone calling records a day to the N.S.A. after “a push to get this flow operational prior to the 10th anniversary of 9/11,” according to an internal agency newsletter. This revelation is striking because after Mr. Snowden disclosed the program of collecting the records of Americans’ phone calls, intelligence officials told reporters that, for technical reasons, it consisted mostly of landline phone records.

US spying on the UN was stopped in 2013 after it was first reported, but it was never clear just exactly how much spying had gone on in the first place. We still don't know, but one of the documents in this new collection says the NSA was authorized to conduct "full-take access," and that the amount of data was so large that it flooded the NSA's technical capability unless a "robust filtering mechanism" was put in place. Sounds like a lot of spying.